Making a good movie about Northern Ireland during “The Troubles” is a difficult thing. One can focus on the some of the main events between the late 1960s and 1998 at the time, like Bloody Sunday (2002) or Hunger (2008). Both of which I would highly recommend.
However, trying to explain what this period was like for ordinary people can be difficult without either playing up or playing down the impact of The Troubles on people’s daily lives.
I moved to Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland in 1994. At the time the main paramilitary organisations such as the Catholic IRA and Protestant UVF were still active. This meant I often heard helicopters overhead; army men going up and down my road, often stopping us on our way home; and an understanding that as a Protestant there were certain parts of Armagh it was considered unwise to walk into.
All of this was normal, however. It was just a part of living in Northern Ireland. Much like if you moved to France, you’d have to get used to speaking French, using the Euro and eating snails and frogs.
That’s not to say I liked it. But then no one really did. There was just nothing we could do about it, was there?
Good Vibrations is the story of someone who did try and do something about it. His name was (and still is) Terri Hooley. And in 1970s he set up a record store on Great Victoria Street, Belfast. A street, we are told in the film that is infamous for being the most bombed in Europe.
Hooley is a man who has no time for the divisions that are tearing his city apart, and hopes his record store will spread some peace and love amongst a community filled with fear and hatred.
The film charts his successes and failures of Hooley as he releases The Undertones‘ “Teenage Kicks” on his own home-grown label, and becomes the figurehead of Belfast’s punk scene in the late 70s and early 80s.
For Hooley, the venture into trying to get bands heard and signed is not so much monetary (his father’s left-wing views weighing heavily on his conscience), but rather altruistic. Punk, with its inherent anti-establishment ideology, and wild, chaotic nature was something we see Hooley become intoxicated by early in the film. It is for Hooley a perfect fit. That is, a subculture freed from any regimes or social norms, including of course the sectarian divides that made up so much of day-to-day life in Belfast.
What the film captures best, and what makes it different to the aforementioned films about this era in Northern Irish history, is its sense of humour. Good Vibrations captures the dark, sharp, dry wit of Belfast in a way no other film has.
There’s a matter-of-factness to the tragedy Hooley is speaking of that meant people in the screening I was at couldn’t help but laugh as he describes some fairly horrific things. For example, how he lost his eye as a child, or lost some friends in a car bombing. This sounds terrible, (how could anyone make light of such things?!) but it is certainly a fair representation of one of the ways people in Northern Ireland tried to cope with the pictures, rhetoric and loss of life that was happening on a weekly basis within the province.
And of course it makes for a very funny, engaging film that never leaves you bored, never preaches to you, but instead shows the story of a flawed man doing his best to survive divisions that he wants no part of.
In that way, it is the almost untold story of Northern Ireland. Of the flawed people who hated what was going on around them, but could only do small things to do something about it. These people still exist, and it’s because of them, thirty years after the events Good Vibrations depicts, protests about flags, and the killing of police officers are now the exception rather than the rule.