24 Lies a Second: Alternative Ulster

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Alternative Ulster

It's funny, you can go for ages without seeing a single slice of quirky fictionalised cultural history and then suddenly two of them come along at once. Last week I saw Michael Winterbottom's The Look of Love, and this week it was Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn's Good Vibrations. I'm virtually certain I saw Winterbottom's names on the credits for this second film, as well, but my researches (okay, t'internet) have been unable to confirm he was involved – it's his sort of thing, though.

Lots of people have already likened Good Vibrations to Winterbottom's own 2002 movie 24 Hour Party People, as it examines a legendary musical scene from the perspective of someone working behind the scenes, but the subject in this case is someone less well-known than Tony Wilson (well, I'm saying that, but I grew up in the north-west where Wilson was always presenting the evening news).

The focus of Good Vibrations is on Terri Hooley (Richard Dormer), a fanatical record-lover with the misfortune to be living in Belfast in the 1970s. The coming of the Troubles has divided the city, with all Terri's old acquaintances joining one faction or the other. He himself refuses to take sides, which puts his life increasingly in danger from the various paramilitary gangs roaming the streets. Much to its credit, the film really doesn't shy away from depicting just how savage and brutal the situation in Ulster was at this point, and having turned up expecting a jolly music-biz bio-pic I was surprised by the tone.

However, the way the film is grounded in reality just sets up the pleasures to come. Unshakeably defiant, Terri goes ahead and opens a record shop on the most bombed street in western Europe, buying off the local gang leaders with free LPs ('And no-one is to have me shot,' he adds, sternly, in one of the scenes one suspects is more fictionalised than most). But the real turning point comes after Terri –previously a country, rock and roll, and reggae fan –is asked if he has a copy of Orgasm Addict. 'It's not that kind of a shop,' he replies –but curiosity about the dawning punk movement leads him to attend an early concert featuring The Outcasts and Rudi, and his eyes are opened to the raw energy and excitement of first-generation punk rock (Hooley's sudden comprehension, the moment when he 'gets' punk, is one of many gloriously well-handled and life-affirming sequences in the film).

And what else can he do but become the godfather of Belfast punk rock, running the shop, Ulster's only dedicated punk nightclub, a magnificently shambolic record label, and managing a number of key punk bands –all in the middle of what's essentially a low-intensity civil war, of course.

Fond though I am of the original punk bands of the late 70s, this is not a story with which I was familiar prior to seeing the movie –but even so I suspect this film has been freely mythologised in order to make it work better as a movie. The story of Terri Hooley appears to have been somewhat massaged to fit the three-act format of the film, and while the climactic scenes of Belfast's punks packing out Ulster Hall for a triumphant mass gig make for a great ending, the film itself makes it clear that this is actually a fairly arbitrary place to end the story.

More mythologised than most of the movie, by the way, is the sequence in which Terri discovers The Undertones almost by mistake. A few minutes later he wanders into the studio where they are recording and, unimpressed, suggests to the engineer (Liam Cunningham, cameoing) they cut their losses. 'You didn't hear the last track they recorded,' comes the reply, almost in hushed tones. 'The best thing I've ever recorded... the best thing ever recorded in this city.' We see Hooley listening through headphones, his jaw literally dropping open, but –of course –the film remains disingenuously coy about exactly what he's heard. There's quite a long build-up to the moment when Teenage Kicks is finally played by John Peel on his radio show (twice, back-to-back), but it's a terrific scene, that joyous, transcendent racket filling the cinema with its swagger and passion. To be perfectly honest, this whole section is a bit of a detour from the main arc of the film, but it would be ridiculous to make a film about Terri Hooley and not cover his involvement in the creation of one of the greatest pop singles ever made.

As I hope I've indicated, there's a lot to like about Good Vibrations, including charismatic performances from Dormer, and also Jodie Whittaker as his long-suffering wife, the willingness of the film-makers to confront the sheer horror of Northern Ireland thirty-five years ago, and –of course –a terrific soundtrack. Put together these go a long way to cover up some of the film's flaws –a nagging sense that this story has been massaged a little too much into the shape demanded by a commercial narrative structure, coupled to the overfamiliarity of that structure. You just know that Terri's success is going to put a strain on his marriage, that events are going to conspire against him, he's going to disappoint people relying on him, but in the end everything will end up going in his favour... (well, up to a point). But on the whole the film is credible and likeable enough, with enough great moments of the kind I've already alluded to, for all this to be not much more than a minor issue. A solid piece of film-making as well as a joyous testament to the uniting power of music; I really enjoyed it.

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