It’s been 16 years since Jake Kasdan’s “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” read the musical biopic to absolute filth, and while there have been a few good movies in the genre that followed, it’s amazing that more filmmakers didn’t actively attempt to repudiate “Walk Hard’s” claims. All the tired clichés and the hackneyed melodrama Kasdan’s film upended are still the industry standard. When, oh when, is a film finally going to accept the challenge and show that there’s still something new to be done with the genre?
The answer, dear readers, is right now. “Kneecap,” a new film about an Irish hip-hop trio that raps in the Irish language and premiered at Sundance on Thursday, is a snort of ketamine in a very uptight world. Funny, violent, sexual, and of the unusual cinematic opinion that illegal drugs are totally awesome, “Kneecap” does for the musical biopic genre what “Trainspotting” did for spotting trains. There’s so much energy and creativity that even when the film falls back on positive messaging — arguing, as it stridently does, for the preservation of Irish language and culture — it plays less like a message and more like an unexpectedly positive side effect.
“Kneecap” stars actual Kneecap members Mo Chara, Móglaí Bap and DJ Próvaí as themselves, albeit somewhat fictionalized. Chara and Bap probably weren’t raised by an IRA bomber who looked just like Michael Fassbender (who is played by Michael Fassbender), and they probably didn’t meet DJ Próvaí when he was enlisted against his will by an oppressive police force to act as their Irish interpreter after one of them got arrested.
Liberties have been taken. Good! All the more entertaining. DJ Próvaí, as he will come to be called, plays a high school music teacher who accidentally discovers that Mo Chara and Móglaí Bap, in addition to being prolific drug dealers, are also talented lyricists in the Irish language. While the country is swept up in a political debate about the legal future of their language, which is spoken by a very small percentage of the country, DJ Próvaí sees an opportunity to re-introduce the world to the wonders of speaking Irish.
This takes the form of recording abrasive hip hop in DJ Próvaí’s garage and doing lots and lots and lots of drugs. Psyching themselves up with cocaine and ketamine, and occasionally getting the two mixed up to hilarious effect (the radio DJ turning into a stop-motion animated boom box is a highlight), they swiftly make a name for themselves not just as talented rappers — which they are — but as the kind of musicians who psych up their audience by literally throwing free narcotics into the crowd.
Now, drugs are arguably quite bad. That’s the standard line that movies and television have been telling us since the heyday of “Reefer Madness.” It’s common to watch a musical biopic depict the tragic downfall of a talented performer as they succumb to drug addiction and alienate their friends and family. It’s uncommon to see a film defiantly argue that drugs make you better musicians. These are irresponsible lads, dang it, but it’s their story and they’re telling it their way. It’s not like you don’t have a century’s worth of opposing cinematic arguments to turn to if you disapprove.
Indeed, there are two proper villains in “Kneecap”: a hard-nosed cop who will stop at nothing to take the band and their fugitive father figure down, and a vigilante organization called R.R.A.D. That stands for “Radical Republicans Against Drugs,” and, no, it’s never clear how that’s supposed to be pronounced. They’re violent jerks who claim to be so committed to Irish liberation that they’ll literally kill a hip-hop group promoting the Irish language if they don’t stop making drug use look cool.
Writer/director Rich Peppiatt tells the Kneecap story with so much energy the movie practically leaps off the screen. Every visual flourish and unexpected revolutionary jolt defies the audience to get bored. The only stylistic flaw is the much-needed subtitles for Kneecap’s fast-paced lyrics, which scribble themselves across different parts of the screen so fast it’s nearly impossible to find and process them all. You’ll want to, but you probably can’t. But, hey, that’s your fault for not speaking Irish.
“Kneecap” is an audacious film that completely obliterates the expectations of the musical biopic genre, all while being just as silly and weird as the media that lampoons it. It’s an act of pure delinquency that miraculously also inspires.
“Kneecap” is a sales title at Sundance.
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