Saturday, April 18, 2015

Come together

(I've been meaning to post this review for a while - what better time than on Record Store Day?)

Good Vibrations tells the story of the record shop of the same name, which was founded by Terri Hooley in defiance of the bad vibrations of the bomb blasts in 1970s Belfast. Sectarian violence tore the city apart, opening up fault lines and setting former friends against one another. Hooley resisted the pressure to take one side or the other, instead choosing to walk a narrow tightrope of neutrality until he discovered in the nascent Northern Irish punk scene a side all of its own - a world where Catholics and Protestants came together in spite of the Troubles, a world where religious and political differences mattered not a jot.

This perhaps explains the longevity of punk in Northern Ireland (and its epicentre Belfast in particular) relative to the mainland UK, where it soon exploded into smithereens with the demise of the Sex Pistols and gave birth to post-punk. As Hooley (Richard Dormer) declares from the stage of the Ulster Hall during a legendary showcase gig for his roster of bands, "New York has the haircuts, London has the trousers, but Belfast has the reason".

Northern Irish punk bands may have had more cause to be angry than most, but that's not to say that they necessarily addressed the dangerous reality of everyday life. 'Teenage Kicks', the signature song of the Undertones, a band Hooley discovered, focuses on the thrills and melodramas of adolescence; one label exec, when confronted with the track by an evangelical Hooley, confesses to being disappointed and wondering exactly where the darkness is. But then that's part of the point: Northern Ireland needed punk, but it needed it as much for escapism and as a unifying social force than as a vehicle for directly addressing the Troubles.

While Hooley may not be a teenager, he nevertheless spends much of the film acting like one. His narrative follows the familiar tragic trajectory, his self-destructive streak regularly manifesting itself and inflicting collateral damage on his nearest and dearest. There are definite shades of Alan McGee and Tony Wilson in his naivety and lack of hard-nosed business sense, as he gets himself up to his eyeballs in debt and lurches from crisis to crisis. The aforementioned Ulster Hall gig, a showcase of Hooley-backed bands, is typical, in that a triumphant event intended to give a timely boost to the coffers somehow ends up losing money.

But Hooley is also like a teenager in his wide-eyed and boundless enthusiasm, his sense of ambition, his hopeless romanticism, and his unsullied and obstinate idealism - all characteristics that prompt him to set up Good Vibrations in the first place. At no point does the viewer stop rooting for the loveable rogue, and arguably the film's most heartwarming moment comes when The Undertones finally get their big break, hugely influential tastemaker John Peel so immediately smitten with 'Teenage Kicks' that he plays it twice back-to-back.

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