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Irish-singing, insult-hurling, drug-taking and politically incendiary hip-hop band from Belfast earn an adrenaline-inducing piece of autofiction - from the 58th edition of Karlovy Vary

Would the first ever Irish language hip-hop band, with just one album under their belt, imagine that they would get a film made about their lives? Or, more aptly, a fictionalised film version of it, played by themselves? Possibly not. The outlandishness of such a predicament is likely to have been the impetus of director Rich Peppiatt first feature film. It isn’t to say the real-life Belfast trio Kneecap, also the title of this film, doesn’t warrant such interest. The band have struck chord with a burgeoning section of the Irish public: those who wish to reclaim the Celtic language, as well as making the case for a united Ireland.

Kneecap is comprised of childhood friend Mo Chara aka Liam and Móglaí Bap (Naoise), both from working-class Belfast families. They spend their time rapping lyrics, funding themselves through low-level drug dealing, consuming as much as they are selling. An altercation with the police, sees Liam get arrested. JJ, a music teacher who speaks the Irish language, is brought in as interpreter as Liam refuses to speak in English. JJ turns out to be a kindred spirit, if an odd pairing, to become the third wheel. Initially producing music to their lyrics, to eventually join the ensemble on stage as the balaclava wearing DJ Próvaí.

They rap is mainly in Irish, with lyrics that are socially conscious and anti-establishment. Even though their songs are barred from playing Irish radio due to the heavy drug reference and swearing in their songs, the band’s popularity soars. This is further owed to their drug-fuelled, uncompromisingly electrifying live performances contributing to their quick ascension from empty local pub gigs to sold out music venues.

There is a plethora of colourful secondary characters. Liam’s conflicted feelings about his pro-union, protestant girl manifest themselves into unusual lovemaking. Naosie is the son of a presumed dead IRA militant Arlo played by a dishevelled Michael Fassbender. He is very much alive and in hiding but trailed by a local cop (Josie Walker), mother of Liam’s girlfriend. And of course, the presence of another, if ultimately irrelevant, cohort R-RAD (Radical Republicans Against Drugs), a military cohort which share the same political beliefs but are aggressively against drugs. These characters are too many and a little distracting, with some of the portrayals being fairly on the nose in their insistence to be funny and ridiculous.

Intermittently matters feel a tad gimmicky, the machinations of trying to be cool and edgy are rather transparent. The cinematography of Ryan Kernaghan is slick and polished, the mayhem on screen is highly stylised but often vacuous. A bombastic, beat heavy soundtrack blares out from every single frame. The film’s pulsating, sped-up rhythm invokes the essence of a prolonged music video, one with an abundance of ketamine-induced hallucinatory montages of gig scenes, club scenes, police chases and car chases, in setting of a gritty urban Belfast. Its reference to Danny Boyle’s economically depressed Edinburgh set Trainspotting (1996) is perhaps too close to the bone.

There is a delicate equilibrium to navigate a story like this with its comedic tone, its copious drug-taking visuals and its boys-will-be-boys bravado and yet marry it with a poignant political message that is supposed to cut through. The politics side of things becomes more complicated as the various factions coming into the fray. Viewers unaware of the political state of play of Northern Ireland, may have to read up beforehand. Kneecap’s, the band, success relies equally on the frenzied energy of their songs and their infectious live performance as on them being a voice for the progressive and the disenfranchised. This message gets a little lost in the perpetual accelerated madness, but the viewing experience is a gripping and all-consuming one, nonetheless.

Kneecap showed at Sundance London, when this piece was originally written. Also showing in the 58th Karlovy Vary International Film festival.


By Daniel Theophanous - 07-06-2024

Daniel has contributed to publications such as Little White Lies, BFI, Tape Collective, Hyperallergic, DMovies and many others. A lot of Daniel’s work is focused on LGBTQI+ cinema and hosts a podcas...

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