Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 26 October 2014

Terri's punks, warts and all, show true spirit of the city

Good Vibrations
Good Vibrations

Shouting loudly about how world-class everything is in Northern Ireland – world-class golf courses, world-class restaurants, world-class colleges, world-class museum experiences: you name it, we're the world-beaters – leaves us with a problem.

Well, two problems actually.

First of all, who do we think we're kidding? We are a small, weird and repressive statelet on the edge of Europe, still struggling to come to terms (both politically and psychologically) with a long, dishonourable, dirty war.

Endlessly insisting – in true provincial fashion – that we are fabulous in every possible respect is the most absurd kind of over-compensation. It makes us look stupid and deluded. Every time we claim that we punch well above our weight, all we're doing is punching ourselves in the face, repeatedly, and in public.

If the rest of the world is watching, which it more than likely isn't, having better things to do than indulge our shamefully inept swaggering, it probably turns away with an embarrassed shudder.

The second problem is that when something comes along that really is world-class – something exciting, subversive, creative and confident; something genuinely good enough to stand on an international platform – we don't have any words for it. We've thrown away all our superlatives, wasted them on mediocre songwriters or glitzy, show-off buildings or Christine Bleakley's hair.

But we should have kept a few superlatives back for Good Vibrations, the film about the chaotic punk impresario Terri Hooley and the indomitable spirit of Ulster punk. It deserves them. This film allows us the unusual opportunity to feel authentic pride about the crazy place we call home.

Direction by Glenn Leyburn and Lisa Barros D'Sa, script by Glenn Patterson and Colin Carberry, music by David Holmes, and an irresistible evocation of Hooley himself by Richard Dormer means this production is truly made in Belfast.

These are our people, our talent. And the film they have made defies the unspoken expectation (the flipside of all the cocky boastfulness) that, if it's from here, it must be rubbish: twee or trite or unfunny or just plain miserable.

I have seen Good Vibrations twice now and both times I found it curiously moving. Not so much because of the story of Terri Hooley, entertaining and honest though it is, but because this is that rare thing, a truthful story of my city, in all its filth and squalor and strange beauty. I recognise it.

This is the Belfast I know, and have always known: harsh and bloody, whimsical and obtuse, thran and free-wheeling – a riot (I use the word advisedly) of contradictions. There really is nowhere else like it.

That's why it sickens me when the politicians and the marketeers want to turn us – in the eyes of the rest of the world – into some bland, forcibly sanitised, witlessly grinning (and safe, don't forget, very safe) post-conflict utopia. There's no dignity in that.

And that's why, in praising Good Vibrations, we shouldn't fall into the trap of wanting to make it all trite and sentimental and cuddly. It's not. This has been repeatedly described as a 'feelgood' movie, but while it's certainly uplifting, even euphoric at times, it's no cosy, anecdotal dander down memory lane.

The Troubles are always there in the background, occasionally looming into grotesque focus, then receding again, but they never go away. That's as it should be, because it reflects the experience of living in this city through the very worst of times.

What feels miraculous, though, is the way that the punk movement, for a while at least, achieved something extraordinary – a non-sectarian rallying-point for young people alienated from the prevailing political culture; a space where the usual tribal codes were overthrown with a wild shriek of rage against the stultifying, deadly status quo.

The darkness will always be a part of our story. There's no getting away from that, and to attempt to erase or gloss over the marks of the conflict is an act of dishonesty and bad faith. They are woven through us; they make us who we are.

But we are more than that, too. What a film like Good Vibrations shows us is the possibility of transcendence: the fleeting moments when joy and hope and love triumph, often in the most unexpected of places, and all the more poignant and precious because of what has gone before.

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