If the press cycle around Kanye West’s 2018 “Wyoming Sessions” marked an extreme if well-earned low point in his ongoing relationship with the public, it also underscored a truth about the notoriously polarizing artist that his fans and critics alike hold onto equally fervently: He means every word he says.
This blunt honesty made him an emblematic celebrity for 2019 — the kind whose behavior fiercely repels some, while inspiring others to double down in their support — but everyone believes that it’s sincere. That’s also why “Jesus Is King,” his 35-minute IMAX film released in conjunction with a new album of the same name, will largely and predictably preach almost exclusively to the converted.
Directed by Nick Knight, “Jesus Is King” is at once too long for a promotional music video and too short for a proper exploration of Kanye’s last year of creative exploration. But with the same earnestness as everything he’s ever done, it also evidences his musical (and, daresay, spiritual) growth — changes that West’s accomplished career has earned him the right to showcase, even if this platform underserves them in format, duration, and most crucially, expression of his singular, irrepressible voice.
Strictly speaking, “Jesus Is King” documents one performance from West’s “Sunday Service” concerts at Roden Crater in Arizona. He’d announced an album entitled “Yandhi” in September of 2018, only to not deliver, and launched a series of private performances in January of 2019 combining gospel versions of his songs and originals with the help of a musical director and full gospel choir.
The film feels decidedly more staged, and more abbreviated, than those performances, documented thoroughly on social media, whose ins and outs (and a more behind-the-scenes eye) could provide a fascinating snapshot of West in the midst of his creative process, not to mention his journey of spiritual self-discovery.
Knight’s camera frequently looks skyward and echoes the shape of Roden Crater with a circular mask that irises in and out while capturing performances of West’s collaborators and, less often, West himself. That’s probably a bonus for many who are less interested in his opinions or thoughts than his music, but it renders the whole exercise more anonymously than one would expect from an individual who frequently refers to himself as some variation of “the world’s greatest living artist.”
Moreover, it scarcely focuses on the music in long enough bursts to unveil the direction of West’s upcoming album, much less what exactly he’s doing to shape the songs that are heard on screen. At the same time, scenes focusing on the chorus itself highlight just how good it must feel to share this music, and their gifts, on a platform that only an IMAX screen feels big enough to do justice.
Having actually attended one of West’s “Sunday Services” in Calabasas, California, I can personally attest to the invigorating, even transcendent energy produced by the choir that revolves around him as they transform pop standards into gospel epics. West seems to be working with their voices in much the same way he does soul samples, improvising new melodies out of familiar ones and building to musical crescendos that touch a kind of enlightenment that feels palpable whether or not you’re a believer — in God, much less in Kanye.
The documentary captures this process too sparingly, both as a byproduct of its length and Knight’s artsier aspirations, but when it does, those are the moments that make this cinematic experience worthwhile. Suffice it to say few concert films have successfully captured the energy of a great live performance, but what’s strangest is that Knight barely seems interested in trying, instead encircling his subjects through movement and camera trickery to create a series of vignettes, or appetizers for West’s forthcoming album.
To take that approach feels doubly strange since the film is playing only on IMAX screens for a limited run; this isn’t the 30-minute advertorial that Madonna or Michael Jackson might have commandeered back when MTV still played music videos. In which case, the best or maybe most honest way to look at West’s film is as what it seems — an experiment, culmination and celebration of finishing his first gospel album, filtered through the architectural, design and cinematic influences that he and Knight have absorbed, or possibly sampled.
Ultimately, “Jesus Is King” isn’t going to change any minds about who Kanye West is or what he’s doing, and in fact it only seems to confirm expectations or suspicions. But for an artist who is committed (for better or worse) to always putting out the purest and most unfiltered portrait of who he is and what he believes, the main problem with documenting this particular moment in this way is that it goes by far too quickly, when it’s the first he’s created in a long time that has the potential to truly change hearts and minds — and best of all, not even solely about Kanye West himself.