Friday, June 21, 2013

Film review: "Good Vibrations" (2012)

This is a film about a shop - not the popular Dublin sex shop, but a record shop of the same name in Belfast. That said, the film is really about the proprietor of that shop, one Mr Terri Hooley (played by Richard Dormer), who apparently played a big part in the development of the punk scene in Northern Ireland.

The film begins with Terri Hooley as a small child having an arrow shot into his eye by some other small children because his socialist father is seen as some kind of "fenian-lover". This sets you up for what a charming wee town Belfast is. When Hooley grows up he gets into music and DJs in pubs and clubs, only then people in Belfast start shooting each other and blowing up their city so hardly anyone is interested in going out to listen to music anymore. The early scene of him playing to no one in a heavily fortified pub probably does more to bring home the grim reality of Belfast in the early 1970s than anything else in the film - the pub is surrounded by grilles and chicken wire, with the door locked from the inside to deter random nutters with machine guns showing up for a spray job.

In this unappealing environment, though, Hooley meets the woman who becomes his wife, though there is something a bit bizarre about their courtship. Seeing her dancing on her own like a vision of 1970s womanhood (and played by Jodie Whittaker) Hooley says to himself "This calls for the Shangri-Las" and throws on 'Past, Present and Future' before strolling over to her. Now, the Shangri-Las are great and 'Past, Present and Future' (the one that uses the piano line from 'Moonlight Sonata') is a great tune, but is a song about date rape really the kind of thing someone should play when making the move on that special person? Whatever, it works for Mr Hooley and the woman (whose name is Ruth) becomes his wife.

Hooley hits on the great idea of opening up a record shop and lures one of Ruth's male friends into this nothing-can-go-wrong venture. He buys off loyalist and republican paramilitaries with vintage records (one of the more bizarre moments in the film) and then sets up shop in a central Belfast street that had been blown to shit over the previous years. And then one day some snotty kid comes in and asks for something called 'Orgasm Addict', insisting that it is something he heard of on John Peel. Hooley goes to a Belfast punk gig and has an epiphany while watching a performance by the Outcasts (or was it Rudi).

That scene got to me a bit, because I do not think we will see its like again. Or I will never experience it. With our endlessly recycled world, it is hard to imagine anything being so striking that on first exposure it changes the listener's life. I may well hear music again and think "that's pretty good", but I cannot imagine ever feeling that I have heard something the like of which I have never heard before.

After his epiphany, Hooley becomes a punk evangelist, turning the shitey pub in which he met his wife into the city's premier punk venue. He starts promoting gigs and travelling around Northern Ireland with his bands (not always the most sensible thing to do, as anyone who has heard of the Miami Showband massacre will understand), eventually setting up a mini record label to release music by these people.

Now, it is part of the general mythology of Belfast that punk rock basically saved the city, and the film taps into this. By the late 1970s Belfast was shutting down as no one wanted to go out at night for fear of being the latest victim of a sectarian murder squad. In this view of history, the punks turned this around by going out to gigs as musicians and audiences from across the divide. In doing so they revitalised the city and in some tenuous way paved the way for the peace process of the 1990s. I am not entirely sure I buy this - I get the sense that a lot of the punk kids drifted back to the gobshite sectarian politics of their parents after a nihilistic and apolitical punk youth. Even so, the punk scene does seem to have been a vision of another way of living in the city.

The films rolls on. A high for Hooley is when he releases a record by a Derry band that is clearly the best thing anyone from Northern Ireland has ever or will ever record, a piece of music so good that John Peel breaks the habit of a lifetime and plays the track twice, leading to the kind of scene you only really get in films where every character in the film just appears from nowhere to dance outside Hooley's house to the sound of 'Teenage Kicks'. Less great is when the shop fails and Hooley loses it, his house and his wife.

I was uncomfortable with the latter sequence, even if it was based broadly on real events. It seemed to tie into the less savoury bacchanalian aspects of the rock 'n' roll myth. Hooley here is the otherworldly seer who is not going to be tied down by such petty concerns as needing to keep a roof over his wife and child's head as he pursues his vision. I suppose what I mean is that this made me think that he is capable of quite pricky behaviour (but aren't we all?), for all that the film portrays him as a saintly figure.

There you go. The politics generally of the film are somewhat oblique - in keeping with the nihilistic gloss of punk, mainstream politicians are seen as gobshites, socialists like Hooley's father are quixotic, the RUC are kill-joy busy bodies, the Peace People are "fucking hippies", the loyalist paramilitaries are a bunch of thugs, the IRA are "cops in balaclavas", and so on. British squaddies are portrayed in a surprisingly sympathetic light, perhaps because of their fish-out-of-water aspect. Beyond that the film does not really have much of a political message apart from a general sense that the world might be a better place if people did not blow up their city and shoot people they disagree with on political and religious matters.

There does not seem to be a soundtrack album accompanying Good Vibrations. The film nevertheless serves as a great pointer to a fascinating time, one of grim politics mixed with exuberant music and great clothes. The costuming and art design of this film in general are all impeccable and a big part of what makes it so appealing.

Here is the film's official trailer:

(I think it has now left the cinemas, but maybe you will be able to see it on DVD or whatever it is the young people use)

And here is John Peel playing 'Teenage Kicks' twice, to an unembeddable montage of interesting images

An inuit panda production

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