Chances are you’ve never heard of this film, nor its directors, nor its cast, nor its subject. Two months ago I didn’t know it existed, but my friend, fellow-critic and film historian Gareth Higgins handed me a copy and changed all that. Gareth knew I’d spent about a week in Belfast back in 1990 and that I liked the city and thought of it in terms of something other than some kind of war zone. (The Troubles were still an issue in 1990.) As a result, he was certain that a movie about Belfast that didn’t focus on its more notorious aspect would interest me — and he was right.
Now, this is not to say that Good Vibrations pretends the Troubles weren’t there. That would be absurd. The film takes place against the background of them — sometimes devastatingly — and there are reminders of them everywhere. But — and this is key — it doesn’t make it seem that that’s all there was or that it was the end-all, be-all of the residents’ lives. This is brought home forcefully in one scene when Terri Hooley (Richard Dormer) is asked if his tour van has both Protestants and Catholics inside, and he replies, “It never occurred to me to ask.” For him, it’s all about the music. (Come to think of it, it’s never occurred me to ask Gareth.)
This is a joyous movie. It throbs with the music of its soundtrack and the wayward optimism of our one-eyed hero, Terri Hooley. (His eye was shot out with an arrow — not because of the Troubles, but because his father was a communist politician.) It’s done in a style that often looks back on the Swinging London of the British Invasion that was defined by Richard Lester in the 1960s — only this is Rocking Belfast in the ’70s. It’s rougher, harsher, but just as full of life. And echoes of Lester aside, Good Vibrations has an identity — and a complexity — all its own. There are so many wonderful moments in this film. You can go all the way to the Kodachrome-colored opening when young Terri discovers music. You can move forward to his wild plans to open a record store — and on to his discovering punk rock, or that inexpressibly beautiful moment when he hears (but we don’t) the Undertones’ recording of “Teenage Kicks,” a song legendary British radio personality and tireless promoter of rock John Peel calls “the best two minutes and 28 seconds of my life.” Put in the simplest possible terms — you need this movie in your life.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Good Vibrations Tuesday, Nov. 10, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville, hosted by Xpress movie critic Ken Hanke with a special introduction and post-screening discussion by Belfast native and film critic Gareth Higgins.