There’s something intoxicating about the thrill of a perfect musical moment. When you hear that song – whether it’s on the radio, on the record, or on the stage – and there’s this transcendent surge as you’re transported somewhere else. Perhaps that rare electricity was coursing through legendary DJ John Peel’s veins when he famously chose to play The Undertones’ punk single “Teenage Kicks” twice in a row back in 1978 (Peel regarded it as his favourite record until his death a decade ago).
That moment catapulted The Undertones to semi-stardom – a gig on Top of the Pops, a tour supporting The Clash – but Good Vibrations isn’t the story of The Undertones. It’s the story of Terri Hooley, the bloke who signed The Undertones to his scrappy record label (named Good Vibrations, naturally), and pressed “Teenage Kicks” so that John Peel could play it. It’s also the story of 1970s Belfast, a town reduced to a battlefield between Protestants and Catholics. Most importantly, Good Vibrations is the story of that perfect musical moment, and how chasing it can drive us to do stupid – and great – things.
As a biopic of sorts of Hooley, the story is pretty conventional – there’s the rise-fall-redemption arc you’ve seen a hundred times before. It’s distinguished by flattening out the typically precipitous rise-and-fall to a modest molehill; Hooley (played by Game of Thrones’ Richard Dormer) never conquers the world, or really even comes close. He signs a couple bands, sells a few records, and when he fucks up about the only thing at stake is his mortgage. The film’s pleasures aren’t to be found in its narrative, but in its joyous celebration of punk rock amidst Belfast’s grim malaise.
The first hour of Good Vibrations is like a great DJ set. Colin Carberry and Glenn Patterson’s screenplay bounces us from terrorism to optimism and from romance to thuggery and back again. It all could have fallen apart into a tonally ill-advised mishmash, but thankfully directors Lisa Barros D’sa and Glenn Leyburn balance the demands with stylistic verve and good humour; like a DJ flipping between genres and styles, it seems crazy on paper but comes together perfectly. There’s one perfect scene here – I don’t use that term lightly – when Hooley stumbles into a punk show on the wrong side of town and is swept away by the music. It’s a goosebump-inducing transformation that powers the rest of the film.
Hooley isn’t, thankfully, a natural businessman or possessed of preternatural musical talent. He’s just a good bloke who refuses to take a side in Belfast’s never-ending conflict and wants people to hear great music. Hooley manages to get “Teenage Kicks” in the hands of John Peel, but it’s thanks to some good luck rather than any particular knack for schmoozing with industry types. When The Undertones sign to a better label, we learn pretty quickly that Hooley’s not in it for the money (the whole thing feels a lot like 24 Hour Party People, and it’s hard to believe that’s an accident).
Good Vibrations sells the “rise” a lot better than the “fall.” His relationship with wife Ruth (Jodie Whittaker) is shunted to the sidelines too often for her growing frustration to carry the weight that it should, and a late film where Terri catches a beating from a couple skinheads lacks the emotional impact it strives to evoke. The finale might oversell Hooley’s significance, but the film never tries to convince you that Hooley is an inimitable legend; he’s just a guy intoxicated by the thrill of amazing music.
This review was originally published at Cheated Hearts.