“Every word of Irish spoken is a bullet fired for Irish freedom,” Michael Fassbender’s IRA fugitive repeatedly tells his rapper son in writer-director Rich Peppiatt’s electrifying Kneecap. Bursting with wild energy and jamming rhythms, it examines the bridge between political matters and crowd-pleasing entertainment through the eyes of the titular Northern Irish rap trio. The group’s three members – Liam Óg Ó hAnnaidh, Naoise Ó Cairealláin, and JJ Ó Dochartaigh – play themselves in a fictionalized version of their origin story set in 2017 Belfast. One thing the group took pride in as much as their music is their faithfulness in speaking the native Irish language (or Irish Gaelic), which was at one point banned by the British before finally becoming recognized as an official language by the U.K. in 2022. Peppiatt, who also directed multiple Kneecap music videos, is able to give the music biopic genre a new spin in the form of a rags-to-riches raunchy comedy, and his three leads get to flex their acting chops.
Best mates since childhood, Liam and Naoise grew up in the aftermath of the Troubles of Northern Ireland in the ‘90s – making them known as “ceasefire babies” – and now live a wayward existence, possibly due in part to the burdens passed down to them from that generation. When they’re not throwing darts at a picture of Margaret Thatcher, they make their living selling whatever drugs they find on the dark web, or scam from doctors. But one thing these young men were taught well in their youth was the Irish language, which borders on obsolescence. This is the language they attribute to their rap lyrics (with some sprinkles of English), many of which brim with hedonistic tendencies such as drug use and sexual conquests. This eventually attracts the attention of JJ, a discontented schoolteacher and Gaelic translator who helps them produce some beats, leading to their first single “C.E.A.R.T.A.” From there, the trio of Kneecap is born, all of whom have common goals: to take the Irish language mainstream and blow the roof off the whole world. It’s easy to compare this docudrama to other rap flicks like 8 Mile or Straight Outta Compton, and like those films, Peppiatt and Kneecap pay tribute to the culture, Northern Irish culture in this case, and put a lot of pride into their heritage.
At this year’s Sundance, deadbeat dads seem to be front-and-center and Michael Fassbender nails the assignment (in a nod to his breakout role in Steve McQueen’s Hunger) as Naoise’s father Arlo, an IRA member who faked his death 20 years earlier to evade arrest. While the adult Naoise is aware his father is alive, their contact is limited to protect Arlo’s identity. Though Arlo himself doesn’t take too kindly to his son rapping about drugs, unlike Naoise’s agoraphobic but protective mother (Simone Kirby) who understands what these lads are really fighting for. The group’s antics also ruffle the feathers of some pretty malicious parties, among them being a Javertian cop (Josie Walker) and members of R-RAD (Radical Republicans Against Drugs), who consider the long-believed dead Arlo a legend but would not hesitate to strike a blow against his son if they deem it necessary. As for Liam, the film’s Mark Renton-like narrator (Trainspotting), he feels torn when he begins a sexual relationship with a Protestant (Jessica Reynolds). JJ on the other hand struggles to reconcile his newfound wild lifestyle of music and activism (which he keeps secret) with his quieter private life. It’s through these relationships and dilemmas that Kneecap subtly highlights how division caused by the ‘Troubles’ still lingers, especially when it’s passed down from one generation to the next. (The Troubles refers to the ethno-nationalist conflict from the late ’60s to ‘98 in Northern Ireland). None of these three men seek pity anywhere. Rather than use the Troubles as a beacon of generational trauma, the film turns it into a sort of punchline in regards to Kneecap’s willingness to defy British supremacy and keep the Irish language alive through their music.
Whether running into the law, snorting cocaine mixed with ketamine, or donning Irish flag balaclavas on stage, the men of Kneecap are having the time of their lives. Peppiatt ensures that no matter what antics they get involved in, we cheer for them on screen just as much as we would for them on stage. Kneecap takes plenty of risks thematically, and they pay off in a way that makes it a heartwarming and hilarious retelling. Whether you’d want to learn Gaelic on Duolingo after watching this is completely up to you, but Naoise (stage name Móglaí Bap), Liam (Mo Chara), and JJ (DJ Provaí) have taken quite an adrenaline-fueled platform to spread their mother tongue in a way that will likely resonate with other proud Irish folks all over. Sit back, take a deep breath, and get ready for one absolute banger!
– M.J. O’Toole (@mj_otoole93)
2024 Sundance Film Festival; Rich Peppiatt; Kneecap