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Kneecap Film Review: Anarchic Music Biopic

The band Kneecap in a still from the movie

Kneecap is an anarchic, stylish and entertaining music biopic, starring all three members of the Northern Irish hip-hop group.

Director: Rich Peppiatt
Genre: Drama, Biopic, Music
Run Time: 105′
Sundance Premiere: June 6, 2024
Release Date: August 2, 2024 in US theaters; August 8 in Irish cinemas; August 23 in UK cinemas

Kicking off this year’s Sundance Film Festival London is a film about the Belfast hip-hop trio Kneecap. The group – consisting of Liam Óg Ó hAnnaidh (stage name Mo Chara), Naoise Ó Cairealláin (Móglaí Bap) and JJ Ó Dochartaigh (DJ Próvaí) – have provoked controversy since 2017 with their debauched, drug-referencing, anti-authority (and anti-British) lyrics.

Their music is rebellious and politically charged – which shouldn’t be surprising. After all, this is a band from Northern Ireland (or North of Ireland, depending on where you lie on the Protestant/Catholic divide). Tensions have existed there for centuries, even after the Good Friday Agreement.

But as made clear right at the start of Kneecap, this is not another story about the Troubles. Instead, British director Rich Peppiatt (who has made a music video with Kneecap) has made an unconventional origin story for the group that perfectly fits their anarchic spirit. It is a music biopic like no other.

For starters, all three members of Kneecap are playing themselves. Moreover, the film is mostly in Gaelic, which, as it explains, is spoken by 80,000 people (6,000 of whom live in Northern Ireland). That is a crucial plot point here. It’s 2019, and activists trying to get Gaelic recognised as an official language of the country. Meanwhile, Liam and Naoise are working-class drug dealers living in West Belfast. They were taught Irish as children by Arlo (Michael Fassbender, of The Killer), Naoise’s father and a father figure to Liam. He was also a political martyr against the occupiers of Ireland who faked his death to evade arrest. Although Naoise knows he is still alive, his mother Dolores (Simone Kirby, of The Buccaneers) has become agoraphobic as a result.

When Liam is arrested at a rave, amateur DJ/music teacher JJ is called in to be his interpreter but secretly helps him. Retrieving Liam’s yellow notebook in the aftermath, JJ sees the Irish lyrics inside and senses an opportunity to update the language for a new generation with his beats. He has the most to lose from teaming with Liam and Naoise, including his job and wife Caitlin (Fionnula Flaherty), a peaceful leader of the Language Act movement. On the other hand, he has the most to realise regarding his potential as the “low life scum” that the boys unapologetically refer to themselves as.

The band Kneecap in a still from the movie
Kneecap (WildCard Distribution / 2024 Sundance Film Festival London)

Together, Liam, Naoise and JJ form Kneecap and begin creating songs to reinvigorate their mother tongue. However, they will have to battle against radio censorship, the police or ‘peelers’ (including the deviously cold Detective Ellis, played by Josie Walker) and dissident anti-drug Republicans. Meanwhile, Liam develops a love-hate relationship with Protestant girl Georgia (Jessica Reynolds), who lives with her aunt. The identity of Georgia’s aunt reveals a Magnolia-style interconnection that runs through the film.

If anything though, with its mix of drug culture, music and voiceover narration by Liam, it most resembles a Fenian version of 24 Hour Party People. The irreverent narration is one of many flourishes Peppiatt uses in Kneecap. There are little scribbles on the screen, including when the band’s song lyrics are initially translated into English. There are shots inside nostrils, animation sequences, ketamine hallucinations and more. It is a film that never stands still, its stylishness enforcing a wild rambunctiousness also found in the cheeky (literally in one scene) and hilarious story conjured by Peppiatt, Hannaidh, Cairealláin and Dochartaigh.

It is also a story that sees the members of Kneecap become the literal voices of the people, tied to how Irish Gaelic is painted as a source of cultural pride in Northern Ireland. It was a language that was once banned by the British and is trying to be repressed now, with the ‘peelers’ trying to get Liam and co to speak in “the Queen’s English.” Yet there is now also a sense of reclamation and resistance. JJ describes the language as like the last dodo bird, stuck behind glass and needing to be freed. Arlo puts it in more succinct and revolutionary words: “Every word of Irish spoken is a bullet fired for Irish freedom.”

Kneecap Trailer (WildCard Distribution)

Despite the prevalence of that theme (and an ending that highlights the rapid extinction of Indigenous languages), Kneecap thankfully never feels overly important or self-serious. Original, hyperenergetic and entertaining, Peppiatt’s feature debut is a film that revels in how unruly it and its main characters are. The fact it is so engaging is helped by all three band members being excellent actors, their performances as electric as their live sets (Jessica Reynolds is also impressive as Georgia). Furthermore, it is a successful showcase for Kneecap and the power of music, as they rebel against those in power and help rescue a language.

Kneecap was screened at the Sundance Film Festival London, taking place on 6-9 June, 2024 at the Picturehouse Central in London, and will be released theatrically in Ireland on August 8, 2024 and in the UK on August 23. In the US, the film will be screened at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 9-13 and then open in theaters on August 2. Read all of our Sundance reviews!

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