One of the reasons Rich Peppiatt moved to Belfast was, he claims, for a quieter life with his family away from the London scene. Unfortunately, within a few months he’d become entangled with the hard-partying and anarchic Northern Irish rap group Kneecap and, as the British tabloid journalist turned filmmaker tells Variety, was “rolling home at 7 in the morning on a Tuesday.”
Such nocturnal binges can now, however, be squarely put down as part of a crucial movie-making process. Several years (and many, many late-night sessions) after their first boozy meeting, Peppiatt heads to Sundance with “Kneecap,” his wildly energetic comedy almost-biopic about the three-piece band starring one of cinema’s biggest names: Michael Fassbender.
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“Kneecap” is Sundance’s first Irish-language feature. But for all the history-making when it bows in the festival’s NEXT section on Jan. 18, it may end up being the rappers themselves who steal the headlines. The trio’s unashamedly outspoken and provocative nature, particularly their recent vocal condemnation of Israel’s attacks on Gaza, has already been testing the nerves of sensitive Hollywood types ahead of their arrival in Park City, admits Peppiatt. “There have been some very gentle discussions about them having to be careful about what they say, discussions which have been met with a resounding middle finger,” he says.
Made up of MCs Mo Chara and Móglaí Bap and the balaclava-clad DJ Próvaí (who all play themselves in the film, making their acting debuts), Kneecap only began releasing music in 2017 (with the single “C.E.A.R.T.A”, meaning “rights” in Irish). But they’ve already earned their notoriety stripes on home soil, rapping about politics, their working class lives and upbringing, their desire for a united Ireland and their own impressive partying and consumption of drugs. The country’s national broadcaster blacklisted them from the outset for expletive lyrics and drug references, while in 2022 they provoked the ire of various politicians when they unveiled a mural of a police van on fire. Along the way, due to them rapping primarily in the Irish language, they’ve also quickly become unlikely figureheads for the movement to save their mother tongue.
It was Kneecap’s “brutally authentic” attitude of “really not giving a shit” that Peppiatt, bored with the more anodyne direction most modern music had taken, says he found instantly attractive. It was also the inspiration he was looking for to make a film.
Whereas others might have gone down the more traditional documentary route or a “50-minute Vice thing,” Peppiatt was determined to make his first narrative feature. And so, with help from the band “over a lot of drinks,” he wrote a screenplay in which the trio play heightened versions of themselves in a semi-fictionalized take on their origin story in post-Troubles Belfast.
Given the riotous nature of many of the scenes in “Kneecap,” viewers might assume this is where the artistic license has been deployed, with the threesome’s exploits — particularly the sheer level of drug-taking — turned up a few notches for shocking and comic affect. Not so, says Peppiatt.
“Most of the wild stuff in the film is true,” he says, adding that it was actually the more humdrum elements he took liberties with to help bind the story together.
So did they accidentally snort lines of ketamine instead of cocaine before one of their first gigs like in the film, leading to a hilariously intoxicated on-stage performance?
“Actually, the only lie there is that it wasn’t accidental,” claims Peppiatt, adding that he probably played down their narcotic intake in the script. “They are quite amazingly robust.”
At some point in the development of “Kneecap,” Fassbender joined the project as a fictional father figure and political martyr, the actor being right at the top of an almost fantasy wish-list because he was both Irish and had claimed to speak the language. “When he said he wanted to do it, it was that moment of realizing that ‘Oh shit, this is a real thing,” recalls Peppiatt. “It focused all our minds. We really needed to bring our A game.”
“Kneecap” lands amid an unexpectedly successful time for Irish-language cinema. Colm Bairead’s drama “The Quiet Girl,” which first premiered at the Berlinale in 2022, went on to become the first Irish film in history to land an Oscar nomination last year and would smash box office records.
“The Quiet Girl” and “Kneecap,” as they sound, are extremely different beasts, but Peppiatt says he’s pleased to have made a film that’s far away from old expectations about what Irish-language cinema should be about. “Previously, it’s tended to look into the past, rather than being modern and gritty and kind of in a ‘Trainspotting’-y direction,” he says. “That was the goal, and I’m really glad we pulled it off.”
Given Fassbender’s star power and Kneecap’s fast-growing fanbase at home and abroad (they toured the U.S. and Canada last year and have another tour lined up for March and April), “Kneecap” the film could well beat the recent records set by “The Quiet Girl.” In Ireland, it’s being released by well-established indie vets Wildcard. In the U.S., they’re waiting on the world premiere before locking down a distributor, with AC Independent and Charades handling sales.
Of course, there’s Sundance to get through first.
Not ones to shy away from controversy, the band — which will be performing an accompanying gig in Park City — are shipping over a fully kitted-out Northern Irish police van like the one in their infamous mural. Will it be set on fire? “Quite possibly — there’s no plan to send it back!” says Peppiatt.
And then there’s whatever the boys may say or do in Utah. For a group that didn’t care about having a record label, Peppiatt says they “certainly don’t care about pissing off film executives,” and that unlike most people who “are desperate to get on that greasy pole so are easily manipulated,” the Kneecap trio “just don’t give a shit” about playing the game.
“But I do want them to be themselves and enjoy the experience, and for us to come out of it with everyone loving the film and without too much collateral damage along the way,” he says. “We just have to keep them off the ketamine.”
Watch an exclusive clip from “Kneecap” above.
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