Punk rock, like many musical genres of the 20th century, was born out of a sense of frustration from artists being held back and repressed for far too long. And if one were to take stock of the cities where punk rock had a bit of a stronghold over its small but loyal audience in the late 1970s and early 80s, there are few places where the sounds of angry young men in studded leather jackets sporting partially buzzed hairdos resonated as loudly as Belfast. A country in turmoil given the war and strife between Catholics and Protestants, punk served as a necessary release for many caught in the middle.
But if one were to believe Lisa Barros D’sa and Glenn Leyburn’s insufferable feel good account of Irish punk pioneer Terri Hooley’s life in Good Vibrations, it was one of the most cinematically clichéd time that ever existed. Far too neat, way too pandering, and not believable for a single second it staves off being the least punk rock movie of the year only because the even more insipid CBGB came out in theatres less than a month ago.
A struggling DJ at the start of Belfast’s “troubles,” Terri Hooley (Richard Dormer) decides to spread a bit of positivity by opening the film’s titular record shop during a time when opening a business of any kind in the city was almost unheard of. Wanting to initially spread peace and understanding through the peddling of pop and reggae albums, Hooley quickly gets hip to the underground punk scene in his city (in an ill handled sequence where after mere seconds he’s pogoing and acting like he’s seen the face of a higher power at a basement show). Now excited by the prospect of this new and aggressive music, he starts signing bands like The Outcasts and Rudi and tries to take them into the mainstream with little to no support from outside investors, those around him, and in some fleeting cases the bands themselves.
Everything about the screenplay from first time writers Colin Carberry and Glenn Patterson is so on the nose and obvious it’s akin to smashing your face into a car’s dashboard at full speed upon getting rear ended. Espousing “the revolutionary power of the seven inch single” with some of the most convenient and sped up plotting of any film this year, Good Vibrations never allows for anyone in the film to become an actual character except for Hooley. And even then Hooley is nothing more than an irrepressible scamp with a glimmer in his one eye (the result of a childhood attack) and a dream.
It’s also directed straight into the rose coloured gutter by D’sa and Leyburn (previous collaborators on the also not very good Rupert Grint film Cherrybomb), who never met a fast paced montage cut together from people doing stuff and archival historical context footage set to a rockin’ soundtrack that they didn’t like. The style is insufferable after only about ten minutes once it becomes painfully apparent that we will never learn about anyone other than Hooley. His spirit will convince those around him that he knows what he’s doing. He’ll unknowingly neglect his pregnant wife for his job. The skinhead punks that said they would jump him will come back on cue when he’s at his worst. His socialist politician dad will give sage advice when the time is right. It’s all frustratingly stock that the filmmaker’s attempts to portray Hooley as a sort of “feel good anarchist” are laughably bad, and it’s made all the worse by just how goddamned cheerful it all wants to appear. It’s going out of its way to live up to its own title and not the spirit of the shop it was named after.
Any moment when the filmmakers (because this is honestly a group botch all around) have to broach the delicate subject of what happened in Ireland when times were at their worst, they shy away. That makes the actual music being profiled seem less legitimate, and almost secondary to making a feel good story. It’s not a movie about punk rock and what it means. It’s barely even about what Terri liked listening to. Its amiability is what would probably make it a hit with audiences, and that’s where I have to call bullshit. This is a movie about a seriously screwed up time in a seriously screwed up place that can’t ask a single hard question about anyone involved who might have lived through it. It’s a film about dark times where it can’t talk about why they were dark with any degree of conviction. It’s all surface gloss; the cinematic punk rock equivalent of a Good Charlotte album. Between this film’s ending (one that makes the end of Wayne’s World 2 look nuanced and could have had its dialogue dubbed over from an inspirational sports movie) and CBGB’s all star cast geek show this year, I hate to say it, but at least for now, punk on the big screen is dead.
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