Every once in a while, a truly badass international musical comes around. Think: the man-eating Polish mermaids in The Lure (2015) or the Leningrad-set rock rebels of Leto (2018). In 2024, we have the hip-hop lads from Belfast in a true-to-life story about civil disruption for language revitalization. And here’s the fun part: the lads play themselves. And they’re feckin’ awesome.
From the very first scene, Kneecap (2024) – the group’s name, inspired by the Irish Republican Army's preferred type of enemy punishment – pulls no punches. Over stock footage of Troubles-era explosions, the blunt narrator (Mo Chara, one half of the rap duo) muses about how every story in Belfast seems to start with violence. “But not this one.”
Mo and his best friend, Móglaí, grew up under the Gaelic-speaking influence of Móglaí’s radical republican father, Arlo (an enthusiastic Michael Fassbender). Despite their revolutionary surroundings, the two young men identify as victims of intergenerational trauma, which they hope to curb by being less combatant than their parents. However, even this solemn admission to their therapists is tongue-in-cheek, as it is largely an excuse for them to acquire more provisions for their secondary, self-actualized religion: drugs.
The lads are unabashed druggies, and it’s the greatest regret of the adults who raised them. The first punch the movie throws is illustrating Móglaí’s covert, forest-set christening as a baby, over which a British military helicopter looms. Arlo throws up a stoic middle finger to the sky. Then, a satisfying smash cut to Móglaí at a rave, absolutely obliterated on ketamine. “He didn’t stand a chance,” narrates Mo Chara. It is immediately clear that the following representation of Belfast will have Kenneth Branagh clutching his pearls.
Rounding out the trio is DJ Próvai, an Irish-language high school teacher who gets swept up in the boys’ hedonistic lifestyle and genuine lyrical talent. He helps to release Mo from police custody when Mo refuses to speak English to the cops (referred to in Irish slang as “peelers”), and he later rescues him from a stampede of Protestant “Rangers” with whom Mo instigates conflict by stealing their baton. How factually accurate these meet-cutes are is beyond me, but no one can deny that they are incredibly cinematic. DJ reads some of Mo’s lyrics from a journal uncovered by the peelers and offers to help produce the lads' music with the recording equipment he has accumulated in his garage. A little moment of inspiration occurs when Mo is having sex with his sort-of girlfriend, Georgia, a non-Fenian who climaxes to his screams for Irish independence. The name Kneecap is thus born.
Trainspotting levels of energy and a wild imagination characterize the aesthetic appeal of a movie that constantly experiments with overlays and split screens. For a film celebrating a lesser-spoken language, subtitles are a necessity to translate meaning, but the accompanying sketchbook graphics often go beyond the spoken word. One small inclusion that makes a world of difference occurs during a conversation between Móglaí and his father. 10 years ago, Arlo faked his own death by “drowning” and began a new life undercover as a yoga instructor. When Arlo references his "death," he mutters, “you know…” and a small graphic of a water splash pops up on screen. It’s a miniscule detail, but highly rewarding for the attentive viewer – and there's much more where that came from.
Many of the film’s callback jokes are similarly rewarding. The lads’ sense of humor is brutal, but still oddly hopeful. Móglaí’s mom (an agoraphobic Simone Kirby) politely asks the cop investigating her son whether she prefers her coffee “in a cup or in the face.” Mo’s narration pops up during flashbacks to add a snide little comment about the peelers or characterize the unspoken intentions of his fellow Republicans. The filmmaker fast-forwards through a scene where Mo and Móglaí “get their bollocks kicked in” by a group of older guys. The age gap between DJ and the lads is also highlighted when DJ humbly proclaims that his garage studio is “no Abbey Road.” Mo responds: “Abbey what?”
It’s easy for filmmakers to romanticize the excitement of hardcore drugs, but Kneecap strikes a beautiful harmony between finding joy in the lads’ shenanigans and recognizing that their habits are not exactly sustainable. All three of them accidentally take ketamine before a performance and end up sliding around the stage as if being controlled by puppeteers. Later, they get so high that they imagine themselves as claymation characters. But DJ wakes up one day in a puddle of piss with his hands down his pants. He loses his job. His girlfriend, the very sympathetic Caitlin (Fionnula Flaherty) eventually breaks up with him because of his new lifestyle, and understandably articulates that Mo and Móglaí are not exactly the best ambassadors of the language.
The fact that the trio plays themselves makes these in-film revelations that much more raw. It’s a drug movie as well as a character journey, but the overarching theme of language and national independence never wanes. The group uses Gaelic creatively and draws attention to their cause, even if it’s not in a way that most people find “respectable.”
Filmmaker Rich Peppiatt admitted in his Sundance introduction of the film that he stumbled across the lads by accident. Walking through Belfast one day, he saw a sign advertising an Irish hip-hop group. Out of pure curiosity, he wandered inside. What he was able to do with this story is pretty amazing. And the behind-the-scenes footage of the actual performances at the end reinforces the craziness of Kneecap’s ascent to fame. DJ Próvai, sporting his trademark Irish flag ski mask, really did moon an audience with the words “Britts Out” scribbled on his buttcheeks.
Throughout the film, Arlo reiterates the slogan that “every word of Irish spoken is a bullet fired for Irish freedom.” That idea alone compels Móglaí to keep away from the car bombings of his ancestors and strive to make a different kind of cultural impact. Mo concludes that “stories are built from language. Nations are built from stories.” And in December 2022, a bill recognizing the Irish language went into law. Let this movie be a rallying call for all communities working to keep their endangered languages alive: maybe start a hip-hop group?
Kneecap has been acquired by Sony Pictures Classics and should be released later this year.