Good Vibrations review

This biopic of Terri Hooley, owner of the Good Vibrations record shop and label that became the focal point of the Belfast punk scene in the 1970s, is a rags to rags tale of a charismatic iconoclast and inept businessman who proved that music could transcend the Troubles of Northern Ireland.

Opening with archive film of a divided Belfast in the 1960s and early 70s, we learn that from childhood Hooley was an outsider – his father was a would-be politician who repeatedly failed to get elected on his communist ticket – and brought up to not to care about whether someone is Protestant or Catholic. The music is what Hooley lives for – Dylan, the Kinks, the Who – and eventually his gift of the gab persuades his bank manager to fund the opening of the shop. His customers are all bearded hippies until the day a schoolkid walks in.

“Have you got Orgasm Addict?”
“I think you’ve got the wrong shop.”
“You’ve definitely got the wrong shop.”
“Fuck off. If you don’t want to fuck me, baby, fuck off. The Electric Chairs.”

Hooley shakes his head but promises to order the records and also put up a gig poster. This hilarious exchange is pivotal for Hooley. Intrigued, he goes to the gig, in one of the most dangerous parts of the city, and is bemused to see a pub full of punks pogoing to the Outcasts. In the midst of this, the police walk in and try to break up the gig, the band strikes up and suddenly the entire room is chanting “SS RUC, SS RUC”. It’s a Damascene moment for Hooley, who suddenly understands the punks are like him, just in different clothes – the music bridges the religious divide.

This theme crops up throughout the film. When Hooley plans to open the shop, he has enough front to walk into a bar full of Republican ex-cons, followed by a bunch of Loyalist ex-cons. As each side draws their weapons Hooley stops them, hands round some free LPs to them, gets in a round of Guinness and then tells them in no uncertain terms that neither side is to come into his shop looking for donations to their cause, and neither side is to kill him. Later, we see his van full of punk musicians travelling through the Irish countryside in the small hours, returning from an out-of-town gig. The British Army officer who stops them and orders them out at gunpoint is so shocked that Catholic and Protestant teenagers are hanging out together, he lets them go and even tells them the safest route back into Belfast.

Yet for all it’s a film about transcending religious barriers, there’s a lot of religious imagery in it. We see Hooley have not one but two Damascene conversions, the second when after being pestered relentlessly by Derry’s Undertones he sends them to a recording studio and hears Teenage Kicks for the first time. The journalist who interviews him for a German magazine calls him the Godfather of Belfast punk. The punks call him their God and their leader. And near the end, after a triumphant gig, he stands on the pavement bathed in the dazzling spotlight of an RUC helicopter overhead, arms outstretched, face upwards, as if in religious ecstasy.

Hooley’s inability to turn a profit precedes, and possibly exceeds, that of Factory Records – this is the man who sold the rights to Teenage Kicks for £500 when he was offered £20,000. But it was never about the money and Good Vibrations paints a very affectionate portrait of both him and the music scene in Belfast. It simply thrums with energy and captures the raw passion of that time. For anyone who was a punk in the 70s, there’s a sharp sense of stepping back into a time when anything seemed possible. If you weren’t, Good Vibrations will make you wish you had been.

It has its flaws. Whittaker, as Hooley’s long-suffering wife Ruth, is underused – more like a bit player even when her scenes are central. And while the political tensions provide the much-needed context, they don’t quite convey just how revolutionary the Belfast punks were in their coming together. Dormer as Hooley, though, is a tour de force – utterly believable as the rebel entrepreneur who stuck two fingers up at the establishment and put his money where it mattered. Thirty-five years after punk hit the national headlines, enough time has passed to view this sweeping cultural change in context and with appropriate hindsight. There are other films about punk doing the rounds now, but I’d bet my last Stuff the Jubilee badge that anyone would be hard pushed to capture the Belfast scene better than this.

Good Vibrations at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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