When Terri Hooley compares Belfast during The Troubles to Jamaica, joint in hand, he doesn’t exactly register as a visionary who would—as in real life—become the godfather of the Irish punk movement. But the scene, early on in UK’s entry to the European Union Film Festival in Toronto, Good Vibrations, was the spark that led to Hooley (Richard Dormer) opening up the iconic (and tenuous) record store the movie takes its title from.
Except that as Hooley learns, reggae wasn’t the thing that finally found a way to unite the youth of the divided city. His euphoric discovery of punk music—from the way it overcame the divisions that had stripped him of his friends, to more simply the thrill of the music is a stunning cinematic moment. Directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Layburn certainly take their time with his epiphany—after all, it’s a life-altering discovery that shaped the punk movement’s evolution—but they manage to keep it personal by focusing on Hooley’s reaction to discovering an underground scene that was full of the things he’d lost since the fighting in Ireland broke out.
In many ways, that’s the emotional climax of the film, and not even an oversized concert at the end can really compete with his joy at finding out some part of the world he remembered had survived. Of course, the scattered mind that makes that brilliant opening comparison isn’t made for entrepreneurship. His shop quickly goes from an empty repository of old classics to the city’s safe haven for punks, and pushed by his new clientele, Hooley ends up opening the record label that would be responsible for the world’s discovery of The Undertones, The Outcasts, Rudi and more.
It’s a fantastic build up of struggle and success that comes with the genre’s predictable fall as success goes to Hooley’s head—possibly Good Vibrations’ weakest moment if only because it’s been done so many times before. Still, the saving grace of his final redemption arc is that he never quite makes things right. But as he says, getting rich and making it big was never the point of the store.
Hooley might argue getting the music out there, and getting it heard and played by the likes of John Peele, was his bigger service to the world. Or the real reason might be a shorter scene, played up more for laughs than anything else that sees the British armed forces on the island baffled by a group of Protestants and Catholics touring together at a time when Hooley’s former friends were scalping each other. Either way, it’s moments like those and Hooley’s bigger purpose—intended or otherwise—that keeps the film from getting bundled in with a number of other success stories. That, and how Dormer as Hooley never loses that touch of naiveté that convinced a grown man reggae could end a civil war.