Good Vibrations is the story of Terri Hooley, a Northern Irish DJ who founded the shop and record label of that name in the early 1970s, which was instrumental in introducing Irish punk groups to mainstream UK attention. Set against the backdrop of Ireland’s Troubles, the film charts Terri’s successes and failures at managing his shop and his life, and does so to a fantastic punk rock soundtrack: lovers of punk will doubtless enjoy.
In such a character-focused biopic as this, having a good lead actor is essential, and fortunately Richard Dormer is brilliant as Terri. He’s instantly charming in the role, from the first flash of his big, disarming grin, and makes you believe completely in the character he’s playing. Terri’s experiences over the course of the film range from unbridled joy to utter misery, and he carries it all off superbly. Jodie Whittaker as his wife Ruth is also excellent, providing calm and serenity to balance Dormer’s near relentless enthusiasm and energy, and the two actors are great together. In addition, there are a couple of nice cameo appearances from Dylan Moran and Liam Cunningham, the latter proving particularly entertaining as the owner of the recording studio used by Terri.
As much as it is Terri’s story, however, Good Vibrations is a story about music. Predictably enough, the soundtrack is outstanding, a long list of punk classics; and, according to directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn, the bands were willing to provide their music for essentially a nominal fee because of their approval for the project. It presents music, as Terri clearly believed it to be, as a tremendous force for good, capable of bringing people together who might otherwise not have even known each other; it’s no exaggeration to state that the film argues that getting together, putting a record on and just having a good time is one of the best ways to solve a problem, even one so great as the Troubles.
Like Terri himself, the film avoids taking sides in the Troubles. It never even tells us whether Terri was Catholic or Protestant, because it simply doesn’t matter to the story. Good Vibrations is about defying violence in all its forms, particularly when caused by disagreements of politics or religion, a moral as important now as it was in the 1970s. An early scene involves Terri giving records to the two opposing sides to convince them not to attack him; in a broader symbolic sense, the film is saying that music has the potential to heal the divisions between such, on the surface, radically opposed people. And that is why punk is so important to the film: if ever a genre of music was about simple defiance, it was punk. As Terri says in the film, the punks don’t care about whether you’re Catholic or Protestant, they just want to play music, to get away from the Troubles and just live. At one point, Terri is questioned about how there can be both Protestants and Catholics in his van. His response: It never occurred to me to ask. It doesn’t matter what you believe in, and there’s no reason for belief to lead to violence. A simple message, but an undeniably important one.
It’s possible to talk at considerable length about what makes Good Vibrations great, but it boils down to four words: go and see it. By turns hilarious, fist-pumpingly triumphant and gut-wrenchingly sad, it may present a familiar story, but it’s so expertly told here that it simply doesn’t matter. Don’t miss it.