Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Good Vibrations (2012) directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa & Glenn Layburn

“New York has the haircuts! London has the trousers!  Belfast has the reason!” 

So shouts record store owner Terri Hooley from the stage of a packed out Ulster Hall.  The room is a sea of dyed hair, safety pins, studded leather jackets - sweaty, smiling youth, blissed out on the buzz of punk rock rebellion.  In the 70s and 80s Belfast was a city divided; the sum total of your identity was Catholic or Protestant.  But in this hall those boundaries mean fuck all -  it’s April 1980, and these kids are united under a shared cultural identity: punk rock and they're kicking back against the sectarian bullshit that surrounds them.

We first meet Terri Hooley (Richard Dormer) as a child.  He’s listening blissfully to a Hank Williams record when a group of other children begin victimising him.  They shoot an arrow at him, leaving with him with a glass eye, far from the last time he’s going to be a victim of violence.  As he grows up, becoming a passionate record collector and local DJ, his friends, once identifying as “marxists, feminists, socialists, hippies and communists” now see themselves as purely Catholic or Protestant.  Terri is sickened by these hypocritical transformations, and after seeing his friends being snatched off the streets and tortured, resolves to try and do something about it.

Richard Dormer as Terri Hooley and Michael Colgan as Dave Hyndman
His solution is “Good Vibrations”, a record shop he opens on Great Victoria Street, more popularly known as “bomb alley”.  Things tick along pretty uneventfully, when one day a kid with a bad attitude covered in safety pins walks in asking if he’s got Orgasm Addict by the Buzzcocks.  Terri bemusedly responds “What?!”.  But, curiosity piqued, he heads along to one a punk gig, and almost immediately falls head over heels in love with punk rock's aggressively anti-establishment attitude.  Before too long he’s hosting ‘Good Vibrations’ punk nights in bars around Belfast, and putting out singles by local bands, including a little number called “Teenage Kicks”.

Terri Hooley is such an immediately likeable character that it’s impossible not to get swept up in his enthusiasm.  His slightly removed perspective of the scene allows him to recognise  just the potential of this movement.  But while he may be a visionary when it comes to music, he’s tragically flawed when it comes to almost everything else in his life.  He treats his wife, Ruth (Jodie Whittaker) pretty damn shabbily, even through she supports almost every madcap venture he sets out to do.  So structurally the film becomes a series of fleeting amphetamine triumphs followed pretty quickly by booze soaked cockups and recriminations.

Terri discovering punk rock
You’d be forgiven for wondering exactly how important a music scene could be in a city that seems suicidally bent on blowing itself up.  To give us some context there are outstanding montage sequences that wordlessly explain the history of the city; frantically cut up stock footage of bombs exploding and news footage from the time.  The atmosphere is thickened by omnipresent graffiti reading “JOIN YOUR LOCAL IRA”, or “PROVOS OUT”. This sinister tension makes the friendly and mutually supportive punk bubble Terri creates feel that much more refreshing and important.

After all the threatening and consciously buttoned down, plaid, 70s-y opening acts of the film, the punk rock scenes are exhilaratingly liberating.  Terri’s punk rock awakening at a Rudi gig  is perfectly pitched, like Terri you feel yourself getting swept up in the sheer bliss and freedom.  As the band chant their cathartic anti-establishment slogans Terri joins in, staring down a policeman.  Both the character and audience come to the simultaneous realisation of the power of this music.

Cool as all hell lookin' Belfast punks
There are scenes in this film that raised the hair on my neck and sent shivers down my spine.  The gig in the small village hall, where one by one the sceptical children are converted to the punk rock cause, the army’s disbelief that none of the punks know or care which of them is Catholic or Protestant, Terri repeatedly standing up to the skinheads who want to terrorise him and his customers.  But my favourite moments in the film involve the production and release of Teenage Kicks.

Good Vibrations is such a damn tease when it comes to this song. Like the shark in Jaws we  spend ages only get to see reactions to it, the film managing the impressive task of building anticipation for a song I’ve heard thousands of times.  At the recording session, the studio technician solemnly informs a late Terri that “this is the greatest song ever recorded in Belfast.”  Terri takes the headphones and silently listens to the recording, mouth hanging open in wonder.  We don’t get to hear it.  

After begging on his hands and knees in an attempt to get the single to John Peel at the BBC, we cut to Terri and Ruth waiting at home.  It’s been four nights and he hasn’t played it.  Terri gives up hope and goes to the bathroom.  From below he hears faint shouts of joy, and pulling up his pants rushes downstairs to hear the final beats of the song play out, 'damn, missed it again', we think.  Then, Peel calmly says “I think we ought to hear that again”.  FINALLY we get to hear it all the way through.  As they listen, Terri and Ruth bounce ecstatically around their flat.  It’s an beautiful cinematic moment, one of the finest musical moments I can think of in a recent film.

Punk rock at the Ulster Hall
The film closes on a riotous celebration of the importance of punk. The Ulster Hall is packed out, and Terri, wearing a leather jacket reading “Outcast” steps onto the stage to raucous applause and adulation, surveying a scene he has nurtured to maturity.  Good Vibrations is about as good a demonstration of the power of punk rock as it’s possible to make.  Belfast during the troubles was a toxic sea of fanaticism, and a strain of aggressive, anti-authoritarian nihilism was just the thing to spit back in the overly serious faces of the IRA, UDA, the British Military and RUC.

The film arrives at a timely moment, the power of punk's transformative and subversive nature still clearly apparent governments.  There’s been punks arrested at a concert in Indonesia, their piercings removed, their heads shaved and then thrown into a pool of water for “spiritual cleansing”.  They were then sent off for ominous sounding “re-education”.  But the most prominent example of punk’s modern power are the Russian authorities attempts to stamp out Pussy Riot.   Members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina both languish in penal colonies that were gulags not too long ago.  In their single 'Putin Lights Up the Fires' they sarcastically demand:
"Seven years imprisonment is not enough. Give us eighteen!!!"
Clearly something about this posturing still ruffles authority's feathers and this film demonstrates exactly what that is: the mockery of identities imposed from above and the power of adopting a “don’t give a fuck” punk identity beholden to no-one.  Good Vibrations is a film for anyone that believes music can change the world.


Good Vibrations is on general release from 29th March 2013

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