Review by Sean Boelman
Although the idea of a biopic for a band formed just a few years ago is worrisome, Kneecap proves that it can be done — and well. Rich Peppiat’s film more than earns its existence by telling the story of these musicians in a way that feels like far more than an advertisement, delivering a genuine crowd-pleaser in the process.
Kneecap tells the story of the eponymous Irish hip-hop group formed in West Belfast, as they burst onto the scene with a unique sound and incendiary lyrics. It’s an uplifting story of a group of underdogs going from rags to riches, but there’s also an incredible level of humor to be found here.
Admittedly, the movie’s politics are somewhat questionable. It’s a little bizarre that some of the characters — particularly Michael Fassbender’s, an IRA leader on the lam — are heroized. It’s also not like the film is trying to say that these are the “good” IRA people; characters like Fassbender’s are still committing violent crimes that have civilian casualties.
Kneecap attempts to counter this with a more unequivocally positive message: the preservation of culture. Strangely, it’s a perspective that has not been taken often in the musical biopic genre. Although the characters’ fight for the right to use their native Irish tongue is a secondary storyline, Peppiatt does a strong enough job of weaving this in with the story of them creating their music.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Kneecap, though, is that this is one of the few instances of a biopic starring its real-life subjects turning out well. Móglaí Bap, Mo Chara, and DJ Próvai have such a natural charisma that it’s impossible not to be charmed by them. Michael Fassbender’s supporting role is also surprisingly large — far more than the cameo some might expect from an A-lister in an otherwise pretty small movie — and he has a few moments where his presence truly shines.
Peppiatt infuses the movie with veritable kinetic energy, but one would expect no less considering the type of music its subjects create. Kneecap’s songs are essentially characters in and of themselves, with lyrics appearing on screen as text in a move that is not entirely original but adds a lot of fun to the film nonetheless.
At times, viewers will grow a bit weary of some of the tropes the movie adheres to. And yet, like Kneecap’s music is a reversal of expectations of the hip-hop genre, Kneecap is a reversal of the audience’s expectations of the “sex and drugs and rock-and-roll” archetype. It’s all sorts of crude but also thoroughly heartwarming and maybe even a bit wholesome under the surface.
Kneecap is a crowd-pleaser of a music biopic, but not in the way you might expect. Thanks to strong performances, kinetic editing, great music, and a story that has no shortage of heart, this film seems poised not only to connect with fans of the group but maybe even win them some new admirers discovering them for the first time.
Kneecap screened at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, which ran January 18-28 in-person in Park City, UT and online from January 25-28.