It rarely happens but sometimes there is an Irish film that you see in the cinema which you are sure is going to make a lot of money. Surely everyone will want to see it. Last year I had the pleasure of watching Grabbers and I remember coming out of the cinema thinking that it could hit the jackpot at the box office. It was just so damned enjoyable, kind of like those American films we see in our droves, but good. Alas that didn’t really happen and sadly as is the case with a lot of Irish films. The ‘Irish’ factor seemed to have kept the crowds away. I happened to catch the last screening of Good Vibrations in Dublin before it finished its run and boy did I have that feeling again. I hope that it did well at the cinema but from what I have read it may not have. One can only hope that for both these films, a long and healthy shelf life awaits.
Good Vibrations tells the story of Terri Hooley (Richard Dormer, truly superb), a record store and label owner in Belfast during The Troubles in the 60s and 70s. We first see him as a child in a beautiful and dreamy sequence at the beginning of the film. Running around his garden he seems entranced by the world he is in. This opening scene gives the film a somewhat sunny disposition but there is always darkness lurking. An accident occurs at the end of this sequence lest we get too happy. We next meet Terri as a peace loving young man listening to reggae with his friends. But The Troubles begin and Terri’s friends pick sides along religious lines and begin to arm themselves. They despise Terri for sticking with his peace loving ethos and not getting involved. It is at this point that he has the seemingly insane idea to open a record store on Great Victoria Street, a location that has been constantly bombed. The shop attracts strays from the burgeoning new punk scene of which Terri is blissfully unaware.
Hooley is precisely the character that if he didn’t exist in real life you would have to make him up. Unashamedly optimistic, self centred and passionate, he is the dream character to centre a film around. The fact that he really exists seems like an especially wonderful bonus. Good Vibrations is very much his story but it is also a lot more. It chronicles a time when some people genuinely thought that music could change the world. Crucially it lets you see how and why people could think this way. The birth of Hooley’s passion for all things punk is captured wonderfully as he goes to one of the live shows in a local pub. This is his epiphany. In an incredible slow motion scene the camera stays on his face as he dances like a mad man. All of Dormer’s acting range is shown across Hooley’s wonderful face. There seems to be an inner war between laughter and tears here with pure emotional joy being the resultant stalemate. Crucially you feel him feeling. This gets to the heart of why the film works so well.
There are a couple of other scenes that are just as good but should be enjoyed without me ruining them. Suffice to say that they are centred on that most wonderful of feelings: when you hear a song for the first time and know that it can change everything - including you. Good Vibrations nails something that few films about music get: namely the absolute joy one can get from the first beats of a song. It is the electricity that comes with hearing something special for the first time. But this is not a film that is all sweetness and light. Good Vibrations doesn’t shy away from showing the darkness that surrounded Northern Ireland at that time. To its credit Terri Hooley is not painted as a saint either. At times he comes across as very selfish and a bit lazy. It also shows the effects of his continuous drinking and use of drugs, without too much judgement but starkly presented nonetheless.
Good Vibrations is a glorious film. It soars with a fierce joy in a dark world. Good Vibrations achieves that rarest of balance: being full of charm but devoid of sentimentality. There are some ‘fist in the air’ emotional triumphs here but they are earned by a smart script and a wonderful style. I will be very surprised if this isn’t in my top 10 of 2013 at the end of the year.