Reel Reviews | Kneecap (Sundance ’24)

by Charles Kirkland, Jr.

When three guys form a rap group to celebrate the Irish language that they have been taught to love, they end up taking on the establishment in the musical comedy, Kneecap.

There are 80,000 native Irish speakers in Ireland. 6,000 live in the North of Ireland. After a run-in with the authorities,  JJ comes across a book of lyrics from Liam.  As a music teacher, he is intrigued and puts the words to beats.  Inspired by an insane idea, Liam, Naoise, and JJ join together to become a rap group called Kneecap to use the Irish language in a raucous protest. After a couple of impromptus, drug-fueled concerts in the local pub, suddenly their music is everywhere.  This anarchic Belfast trio become unlikely figureheads of a civil rights movement to save their mother tongue.

Bursting forth from an often unpredictable and raucous post-Troubles Belfast, Liam Óg Ó hAnnaidh, Naoise Ó Cairealláin, and JJ Ó Dochartaigh leap onto the screen to play themselves in this heightened and wildly entertaining tale of the Irish rap group Kneecap’s origins, with Michael Fassbender in tow as the charismatic father figure turned political martyr. Armed with a blend of English and native Irish verses and blazing, politically charged rhymes, Kneecap’s music takes us on a ketamine-fueled, rollicking trip to encounter the meaning of pure defiance. Writer and Director Rich Peppiatt captures the untamable essence of this singular trio with unapologetic humor and energy, revealing a generation born out of chaos and ready to reclaim their cultural heritage. Fervent and unforgettable, Kneecap is the unforgettable recounting of the origin of the actual group that shook up a nation.

Joined by Josie Walker and Simone Kirby, Liam, Naoise, and JJ bring to life a fascinating tale of oppression and revolution set in the North of Ireland (not Northern Ireland).  The members of Kneecap confess that they never intended to be a force in the political struggle over their indigenous language.  But as they were rising in popularity, there happened to be a referendum in the nation over the legality of the use of Irish as a language.

The great humor in the film is the comparison of the struggles of the Irish to those of African Americans.  While the absence of forced servitude is a major difference, the Irish consider the English to be as subversive and oppressing as Blacks view White Americans.  The Irish even call the English “colonizers”, a popular label used by those of color around the world who have been subjected to the English.

In many ways, this film does everything that it can to position itself as a BIPOC film.  It states that Irish is an indigenous language, one of many that is threatened to be eliminated every year.  This is a plight that was also brought to light recently through films like Killers of the Flower Moon and Marvel’s show Echo.  Peppiatt is incredibly effective in his efforts.  The band Kneecap in this way is almost the equivalent of NWA or Public Enemy in their efforts to decry the powers that be.

Kneecap is a fun, violent, drug-infused, and extremely profanity-laced journey through the plight and sufferings of a group of people who just want to exist.      

 Grade:  B-