“jeen-yuhs” codirectors Coodie and Chike were smart to break up their documentary on Kanye West into three parts, especially where they did: “Act I: Vision” covers the earliest days of a future legend, “Act II: Purpose” zeroes in on the pivotal moment that he became a megastar, and “Act III: Awakening” explores the repercussions of that explosive success.
The only problem is that, as the insiders who made the first two acts, Coodie and Chike got kicked outside for the third — a perhaps natural progression for the inner circle of an artist who, as an underdog, wanted every moment of his life documented but now, as a superstar, almost certainly does not. Particularly, that is, in the current climate, when the rest of the media hangs on his every public act or social-media missive (and justifiably or no, is not kind about them).
As a result, “Awakening” feels more forlorn and distant than its predecessors, unsure of how to resolve a life and career story that obviously is not yet finished, wherein its documentarians no longer have the same access as they once did.
“Awakening” opens with an act of hubris from Kanye West that seems prophetic (given his subsequent behavior) but which one imagines might have been charming at the moment he was hovering on the cusp of success: West gets into a real argument with frequent collaborator and fellow rapper Rhymefest for emphatically saying that Kanye is not a genius — yet. “Genius is developed through experience and hardship,” Rhymefest observes, “and I thought you were a genius before I saw Jay-Z make up a rap in five minutes.” Of course, Jay-Z had more than a decade of experience on West even before he released his debut album, but you still get the sense that West’s beloved mother Donda may have at least slightly over-nurtured her son’s confidence.
Sadly, she died in 2007, taking with her the counterbalance and groundedness that kept him tethered to reality, although more than one montage showcases exactly how quickly West succumbed to delusions of grandeur — rationalizing his claims of being a genius, claiming to be to hip-hop what Michael Jackson was in the 1980s — years before she passed.
Donda’s death is widely acknowledged by critics in the media as West’s “Rosebud,” and if you’ve paid attention to his behavior between then and now, it’s easy to suggest her absence set him on a different path. Unfortunately, Coodie and Chike don’t offer much more complexity to this widely-held theory, despite the mountains of footage that they recorded of the two of them during the formative years of his career.
To be fair, it is undeniably touching to watch West and his mother sing “Hey Mama” together in his kitchen or to see how she props him up as his biggest and most tireless supporter. It’s certainly possible that every bad decision he’s made in 15 years originates from that understandably unmooring event in his life, but from a storytelling perspective, it behooves these would-be insiders to draw that conclusion with a bit more nuance than the average know-it-all critic.
By Coodie’s own admission, he and Chike began to lose touch with him even before Donda passed away; what becomes subtly fascinating to watch is the distance that grows between the camera and its subject as Kanye’s star continues to rise, an official “team” assembles around him, and the documentarians’ status downgrades to a part of his entourage.
While years tick by without him being a part of Kanye’s life, Coodie chronicles the birth and raising of his own daughter as a well-intentioned but unsuccessful effort to create the parallel narrative of his own life and career, while the footage of Kanye grows more packaged and distant. The filmmaker’s sympathetic arms-length commentary on Kanye’s exploits, from interrupting Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2009 to his failed 2020 presidential bid, offer few insights that others haven’t made before.
Unexpectedly, Coodie gets an opportunity to follow Kanye at the tail end of his series of Sunday Service performances and his promotional tour for the accompanying album “Jesus Is King,” and later he decides to start assembling 20 years’ worth of footage into a film as COVID-19 shuts down the country. Flying to the Dominican Republic in July 2020, Coodie not only captures footage of Kanye recording (and of the constantly shifting influences of religion, art, culture, and even pottery that drive his creativity,)but also of some uncomfortable conversations with real-estate partners that grow so unhinged that he actually stops filming.
It’s clear that this is a different Kanye West than the one he once knew, and Coodie seems to capitulate to the idea that his former friend has grown so successful and powerful and out of control that there’s no way to turn that trajectory around, much less to intervene and comfort Kanye.
As the documentary concludes, what audiences are left with is a series of images of Kanye West, a hip-hop prodigy turned superstar turned tabloid magnet, imploding as his bi-polar disorder scuttles his presidential campaign — and seemingly everything else in his life — while incessant, grandiose aspirations push him into increasingly unhealthy obsessions, most of all about himself. His interactions with the world have formed a feedback loop that seems to simultaneously reinforce his larger-than-life visions and ruin the prospect of him achieving any sort of ordinary living, much less happiness.
Coodie is right to be sad about it, and so should viewers, but what “jeen-yuhs” underscores is that with Kanye West, the knob is broken off and the volume is turned up too high, so even if you want to be compassionate and forgiving, even the things that you might like are too obnoxious to want to experience. Of course, it seems like a sensation that is more common to high-profile celebrities than ordinary people would ever have the opportunity to know, but if Coodie and Chike’s documentary doesn’t tell us quite enough about Kanye West that we don’t already know, it manages to capture that phenomenon and to localize it in someone. At least we now have a fuller portrait when we decide to judge him.
“jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy” Act III: “Awakening” premieres on Netflix March 2.