Film Reviews: Music at Sundance 2024 – Rap in Irish, Devo’s Satire, Brian Eno’s Reflections

By David D’Arcy 

Among the memorable films at Sundance 2024, a trio of music films led the way.

A scene from Kneecap.

Kneecap, a throbbing and irreverent hymn to the contemporary and the traditional, follows the eponymous band in and out of bellowing hip hop raves in the Irish language. The screening was nothing if not a linguistic novelty for the Sundance audience.

Always in the background, given the film’s title, is the history of violence that has long been the brand of the north of Ireland, where the surviving indigenous language is identified with political consciousness and resistance. A confident wisecracking swagger runs through Kneecap, written and directed by Rich Peppiatt. Plus echoes of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting: think of it as Boyle on steroids.

Kneecap is built around the band and plays like a documentary. Part of the narrative is a twist on the tale of local lads that make good, often with the police in chase.

Moglai Bap and Mo Chara (rap names) have fans for their defiant performances in Irish, fueled by the drugs that they convince doctors to give them or, failing that, which they deal in themselves. They are joined by DJ Provai (actor JJ O Dochartaigh), a teacher of Irish who also serves as a translator for crime suspects who insist on speaking it. Joining the band, Dj performs wearing a balaclava in Republican colors. If that weren’t enough to billboard the band’s politics, one of the boys has “Brits out” tattooed on his bare buttocks, a sentiment he will eagerly display to almost anyone. I did wonder why those words aren’t in Irish. Maybe he wants the British get that message directly.

There’s more. Moglai’s father, Arlo (Michael Fassbender) is a Republican leader who’s been on the lam for years after faking his own death. In flashbacks, before Arlo vanishes, he instructs his son that speaking his own language is a political act. The lewd onstage rants — with curses hurled out at the crowds — make the survival of this language anything but academic.

Peppiatt’s layered script covers a lot of territory, much of it local, so an international audience will inevitably miss some nuances. For all the talk about the Irish language somehow bonding both sides of well-meaning new Irish generations, tensions endure. The police are on to Moglai Bap; he won’t waver from speaking Irish in interrogations and a woman investigator is determined to crack him. That hardheadedness earns him more beatings. Let’s not forget that, not too long ago, it was illegal to speak Irish in the north of Ireland. Also, part of the current resurgence of Irish was born out of necessity in British prisons, where Republican prisoners shared information in a tongue that the guards couldn’t understand.

Reviews and press reports stress the presence of the German/Irish Fassbender, a bona fide movie star (with a mere handful of scenes). But the trio at the center of Kneecap turn out to be as charming as anyone who has even told you where to ‘stick it’ in scatological Irish. (Bear in mind that they performed in the US in the fall and the media have been all over them for a while.)

Does bringing back the Irish language, one or one thousand obscenities at a time, sound romantic? An upcoming US tour by the group and the release of the film later this year will test that proposition.

A scene from Devo.

Devo, by the doc veteran Chris Smith, is another film about musical rebels, although these ’70s mavericks began their performing careers with the assumption, according to co-founder Mark Motherspaugh, that rebellion had become obsolete.

It was a reasonable assumption, given that the original band members were students at Kent State University in 1970 when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on unarmed students protesting the US invasion of Cambodia. Four students were killed. Many more were injured.

If protest wasn’t an option for the band, the satire that Devo (devolution) eventually produced proved to be the ultimate reality check. At first, most of the media and a clueless music industry seemed unable to tell what was going on.

Performance art had yet to crash into the mainstream when band began performance in their inverted ziggurat hats and matching one-piece suits in glaring colors. Initially, audiences rejected Devo; until they got used to them, which took a while, as we learn in the film’s kaleidoscopic presentation of archival footage. As persistence — devolutionary determinism? — would have it, the band eventually dined out on their nerd-future image  in 1980nwhen they had one mainstream hit, “Whip It.” After a few years, execs at Warner Brothers concluded that these guys probably wouldn’t going to come up with another top 40 song. David Bowie had helped them get a contract with Warner. Neil Young, also a fan, played with them onstage.

Devo the doc is a fun amble through years of the group’s surreal satire and prescient imagination. Beyond the zany performance footage, some of film’s best moments come in the group’s interviews on TV (they were celebrities after all) with bewildered anchors who thought Devo satire of the state of the world wasn’t serious, that there was nothing beneath the signature plastic wigs.

Eventually, the music business adapted to Motherspaugh and company, who kept performing in various versions, including a show at Sundance 2024. Their long list of musical credits outside of Devo extends from the score for the Devo-esque Pee Wee’s Playhouse to Rugrats to a long collaboration with the filmmaker Wes Anderson. Warner Brothers never came knocking again. This doc shows that it was their loss.

Brian Eno in 2015. Photo: Wiki Common

Eno, directed by Gary Hustwit, is also a survival story.  Brian Eno, now 75, is the former glam rocker with Roxy Music who shed the make-up and glitter of that era to specialize in the creation of subtle ambient music and to produce recordings with David Bowie, David Byrne, Robert Fripp and more.

Eno is more of a shifting conversation than a portrait. Hustwit has made a film that will be in a different version each time that it is screened, evidence of Eno’s long openness to AI and the evolution in its applications to art. Having seen the film once, I can’t tell what those different versions of will look like, or what they will tell us about how works of art are conceived and made.

The evolution of Brian Eno is something that we do see, from a painted glittery young musician to a monkish man in glasses with his hair shorn and then a warm bearded soft-spoken sage with an easy laugh, ready to address whatever the director asks him.

Fans won’t get as much as they might want of Eno’s studio sessions or performances. Still, we do get a few glimpses of the man at work. Without giving too much away, be prepared for a scene with a (at the time) long-haired Bono of U2 that reveals how Eno could play an essential role in helping a performer find a way to be better. Bono wasn’t the only one.

We leave Eno in this quietly engaging film arguing that, after a lifetime of technical and technological inquiry, the expression of feelings is what essentially matters in art. The sentiment sounds vexingly tautological, a conclusion that you can’t refute and that most of us may feel that we knew already. Understanding how Eno got there is one of many reasons to see this film more than once.

David D’Arcy lives in New York. For years, he was a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He writes about art for many publications, including the Art Newspaper. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a Nazi-looted painting found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.

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