We’re introduced to Terry Hooley (Richard Dormer) when he’s just five years old, playing in the front garden of his Belfast home. When one of the other children he has been arguing with slingshots a stone at his face, Terry becomes Terri – with one i.
It sets up a brilliant metaphor in this true story of Belfast’s godfather of punk – with just the one eye, Terri sees the world a little bit differently from everyone else, and that’s to his enormous credit at the height of The Troubles in 1970s Northern Ireland. Refusing to affiliate himself with either side, Terri finds that old friends have become enemies and it’s not long before there’s an attempt made on his life. His best friend flees to London, but that’s not Terri’s style. Instead he consults with his wife (a solid but underused Jodie Whittaker) and decides to open up his eponymous, ironically named record store on one of the city’s most bombed streets.
After he does, there are occasional reminders of the world that Terri’s store (and latterly his record label) has to exist in, but it's the effect that the violence has already had, rather than the effect it’s still having, that drives the film. The conflict has bred a disaffected youth in Belfast, and when Terri discovers them and the punk rock they’re creating, he’s transformed. Aside from the fundamentals of Hooley’s biopic, theirs is the story that directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn (“Cherrybomb”) seem most interested in telling. When times are tough for any young generation (like they are currently in the U.K.) it’s always interesting to go back and examine how previous generations vented their frustrations.
Back on the biopic front, Hooley makes for a fascinating subject and at times he’s an inspirational character to follow. Richard Dormer is excellent in what should be a breakthrough role for the 42 year-old Northern Irishman (who will join “Game of Thrones” as Beric Dondarrion next season), and it’s a role he can have a lot of fun with. Terri’s a character you can’t help but like, whose madcap schemes are so easy to get swept up in. All’s going okay when Hooley is signing bands like Rudi and The Outkasts… but it’s when he discovers the cocky young Feargal Sharkey (and his band whom you may have heard of, The Undertones) that things really kick off. There’s a wonderfully triumphant scene in which John Peel finally plays "Teenage Kicks" on Radio 1… and it’s so good that he has to play it twice. Hooley’s dreams have been realized.
But it’s also this event that shows up Hooley to be a severely flawed hero. There’s an inherent selfishness to him when it comes to sticking to his ideals. It’s all well and good to turn down £20,000 from a major label for the rights to "Teenage Kicks" in favor of a new £500 van and a signed photo of The Shangri-Las (an admittedly hilarious demand), if only he didn’t have a family at home to support. He’s consistently putting their stability and future under threat, and the strain that puts on his relationship with his wife is one of the reasons why it would have been great to see more of Jodie Whittaker. It’s also tough to fully respect the man for acting as a father figure to hundreds of young punks when he fails to fill the same role in his own home.
Credit to the directors though for portraying him warts and all, and for that reason he never feels like a movie character either. That’s a huge achievement when it comes to a man who’s so chaotic and unconventional, bubbling over with wit, and who wears his heart on his sleeve. You may not always be able to identify with him, but you’re still be invested in his story, and thanks to Dormer, you’re enjoying every second that he’s on screen. There’s also a touching subplot involving Hooley and his socialist father who regularly come to blows but have more in common than they may think. In fact, much of the story is touching and ultimately uplifting in spite of itself. It can’t be easy to make a film set during The Troubles that leads with such a positive message, but "Good Vibrations" does that by throwing you right into the middle of a spirited rebellion that has the very best of intentions. [B]