‘Hugely entertaining Kneecap movie delivers deliciously crude craic agus ceoil’

David Roy reviews the fictionalised biopic of the Belfast Irish language rappers, which had its Irish premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh this evening

Kneecap in a scene from Kneecap
Ready to rampage: Kneecap in a scene from Kneecap


Certificate 18, 105mins, comedy/drama. Starring: Móglaí Bap/Naoise Ó Cairealláin, Mo Chara/Liam Óg Ó Hannaidh, DJ Provaí/JJ Ó Dochartaigh, Josie Walker, Fionnuala Flaherty, Jessica Reynolds, Adam Best, Simone Kirby, Michael Fassbender
Director: Rich Peppiatt

MOST bands have to wait until the end of their careers to get the biopic treatment, but Belfast’s Kneecap are definitely not like most bands.

Being an Irish hip-hop act already set Móglaí Bap, Mo Chara and DJ Próvaí apart from the crowd, but this trio of self-styled ‘republican hoods’ have further fostered a unique musical identity by rapping their ribald, drink and drug abuse-fuelled lyrics in a fluid mix of Irish and English.

The Belfast trio have only just released their debut album, yet here they are starring alongside your actual Michael Fassbender in a highly fictionalised, hugely entertaining account of their origin story, which has already won the audience award at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.

Those who only know the band from their headline-grabbing, PUL-baiting antics will soon be treated to a quick Kneecap recap via this eponymous Rich Peppiatt written and directed movie, which had its Irish premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh this evening and goes on general release next month.

Like their songs, the film is mainly in Irish – and the bits in English are mostly swearing.

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How much of what you’ll see is true? Well, best take it all with a large pinch of salt (or perhaps something stronger). Peppiatt takes elements of the band’s real lives and supercharges them for entertainment purposes, creating a kinetic collage of fantasy and reality which rattles along at a furious clip, reminiscent of its subject’s rapid-fire musical delivery.

Appropriately for a tale based upon such a chemically-enhanced act, Kneecap has a vivid, psychedelic aspect to it. Words and lyrics come to life on-screen via drawn-in text and animation, while the effects of ingesting various mood-altering substances are creatively represented in a number of ingenious ways, including a superb moment where live action is substituted for claymation.

The film sets its gleefully anarchic, semi-fantastical tone early doors with an opening sequence in which baby Naoise is baptised on a Mass rock while beatifically bathed in the heavenly light of an army helicopter’s night sun.

 Kneecap: Mo Chara, Móglaí Bap and DJ Próvaí
Kneecap: Mo Chara, DJ Próvaí and Móglaí Bap

The chopper thinks it’s discovered an IRA training camp, with good reason: Naoise’s dad, Arlo (Michael Fassbender) is a veteran IRA man and former hunger striker, who will soon fake his own demise to escape the Brits once and for all – but not before instilling his young son with the credo that “every word of Irish spoken is a bullet fired for Irish freedom”.

Flash forward to 2019, as our power-sharing government collapses due to disagreement over a proposed Irish Language Act. Despite being fluent Gaeilgeoirí, aspiring Irish language rappers Naoise and Liam are too busy getting dealing drugs and getting wrecked to worry about any of that.

Naoise is also pre-occupied by his depressed ma (Simone Kirby) and still on the run da, while Liam is pursuing an increasingly twisted affair with a Protestant girlfriend, Georgia (Jessica Reynolds), who enthusiastically shares his kink for a bit of ‘the other side’ in the bedroom.

The poster for the Kneecap movie
The poster for the Kneecap movie

As for the bi-lingual lyrics they’re secretly writing under the rap pseudonyms Móglaí Bap (Naoise) and Mo Chara (Liam), sure who the hell wants to hear Irish hip-hop, never mind Irish hip-hop in Irish?

Meanwhile, the future DJ Próvaí is still plain old JJ, a frustrated teacher of Irish and music at a respectable secondary school whose youthful dreams of making music himself have long been relegated to weekend beatmaking in his home studio.

JJ’s partner, Caitlin (Fionnuala Flaherty) works as an ‘interpreter’, assisting Irish speakers in legal matters, and when JJ reluctantly stands in for her to translate for the recently arrested Liam, he makes a fateful decision which changes the course of all their lives.

Welcoming Liam and Naoise into his studio, the beats, rhymes and, inevitably, blow start to flow: JJ’s subsequent journey from mild-mannered teacher to masked coke and ketamine-fuelled musician offers some great comedy moments – including an hallucinogenic cameo from Gerry Adams – and the dramatic stakes are raised as his two worlds begin to collide alarmingly as the trio begin gigging.

Kneecap’s viral video-assisted rising popularity/notoriety is soon being discussed in the media as a ‘threat’ to the success of Caitlin’s Irish language campaign, putting JJ/Próvaí's relationship and job on the line.

They’ve also caught the attention of local paramilitary eejits Radical Republicans Against Drugs, who of course don’t mind drugs at all so long as they are making them money, and a hard-nosed copper, Detective Ellis (Josie Walker), who’s charged with keeping Kneecap from planting any inspirational ideas in the heads of fellow young Irish speakers.

Kneecap in action in Boston
Kneecap in action in Boston

The tension ratchets steadily upwards as the film careers rapidly and stylishly towards a big climax set at a landmark Kneecap show in Belfast.

Despite having almost no previous acting experience, the band are naturals in front of the camera, particularly DJ Próvaí, who does a great line in deadpan. Móglaí Bap holds his own impressively in a couple of emotionally charged scenes with screen veteran Michael Fassbender, while Mo Chara fields the feisty back-and-forth banter with his love interest with aplomb.

Deliciously rude and crude, yet stylish and witty with it, Kneecap is a brilliant bombastic blast of a film that’s fully loaded with craic agus ceoil.

If the music thing doesn’t work out for them, sure there’s always Hollywood to fall back on.

Kneecap will be released in cinemas on August 8