Spectrum Culture’s recent feature on the best biopics of the last 20 years was missing one of my favorites, simply because nobody else knew what it was. Readers may be forgiven for thinking that this 2012 film’s title marks it as another Beach Boys movie, but it’s not. In fact, I’m reluctant to even paint it with a sub-genre label that usually indicates safe, quasi-historical product. This low budget Irish indie production is technically a great biopic, but it’s an even rarer and more precious animal: a great rock ‘n’ roll movie.

Though a title explains that the film is “based on the true stories of Terri Hooley,” Good Vibrations immediately sets itself apart from the run of biopics and rock movies. Co-directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn introduce the young Hooley with his arms outstretched, running around the manicured lawn of his idyllic Belfast home. In a state of mind that the adult Hooley would return to on a regular basis, he’s high as a kite, but his childhood euphoria has its genesis not in herbs but in music: Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light.” The boy’s paradise is interrupted by a stark montage of the conflict of the subsequent decades, and as we meet the adult Hooley, he sits between his parents watching black and white news footage of the violence erupting in Northern Ireland.

Hooley (Richard Dormer) is a Belfast ne’er do-well whose DJ night at the local dive bar means reggae. It also means, for the most part, an empty house. At the end of the ’70s, in the middle of The Troubles, bombs threaten to light up the neighborhood on any given night. In this volatile climate, on a street that is one of the most bombed-out in Belfast, what does this enthusiastic, naive music lover, the son of a Socialist, decide to do?

He opens up a record store called Good Vibrations. Sticking to his reggae guns, Holley doesn’t do well at first, but when a group of addled, spiky-haired youth give Hooley flyers for their band, he learns that bombs aren’t the only things making a racket in his home town. Holley decides to make his own racket and start a record label.

The DIY enthusiast is one of the most beloved and well-worn tropes of the rock ‘n’ roll movie, but Good Vibrations somehow injects this familiar template with fresh and palpable excitement. There are scenes that convey the thrill of music in ways I’ve never seen in another movie–and I’m not even that crazy about the Undertones. When a Rudi and the Outcasts gig gradually coaxes a group of awkward Belfast teens into jumping around on a dance floor; when BBC’s John Peel decides The Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks” is so good he plays it two times in a row; when Hooley sings a Sonny Bono song at a benefit show at a packed Ulster Hall; these are the moments that must have inspired British film critic Mark Kermode to admit that the movie twice moved him to tears. Yes, insensitive bastard that Kermode is, I counted three moments of chest-bursting exuberance.

A big part of the movie’s success lies in it’s lead, Richard Dormer. He exudes something of the innocence of Rowan Atkinson, but his expressive if well-worn face has crow’s feet giving the mark of experience to his innocent eyes. Dormer keeps Hooley’s naïveté and enthusiasm endearing even when he falls into the workaholic’s trap of neglecting his family.

An inferior biopic would find some terribly awkward way of pointing out that the members of Rudi and the Outcasts were a mix of Catholic and Protestant in a time and place when that kind of mix inevitably resulted in violence. The script by Colin Carberry and Glenn Patterson treat this the way Holley treated it: as an afterthought. At one point, the band’s van is pulled over after a gig by a group of armed men who point out to Holley that the musician’s he’s managing are made up of that caustic mix of religions. “It never occurred to me to ask,” Holley responds. This scene is more harrowing in the context of a passing reference that will go over the head of most readers on this side of the pond. In a brief montage of other Irish musicians, the film displays a press photo of a group called The Miami Showband, then without explanation cuts to a scene of carnage. In 1975, a paramilitary group killed three members of the band in an incident known as the Miami Showband Massacre.

This was an incredibly dangerous time, and the film points out that while London and New York punks had attitude, Belfast punks had more than enough reason to shout. But the film is set in such a specific place and time that it’s no wonder this potential crowd-pleaser was never picked up for theatrical release in the US. I only heard about it as a one-off screening commemorating Record Store Day. I’m sure a lot of people left that screening itching to buy records. Good Vibrations must be a wonderful communal experience in a crowded movie theater with a good sound system and a theatre full of aging punks. Since that’s unlikely to happen for most readers, you can rent it on iTunes instead. I highly recommend you do.

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