When standup comic Clarence “Coodie” Simmons crossed paths with a rising music producer named Kanye West at Jermaine Dupri’s birthday party in 1998, he was so profoundly inspired by the 21-year-old’s talent and sheer force of will that he decided to quit his beloved Chicago public access show “Channel Zero” and follow this fire-breathing local visionary east to New York. Simmons’ plan was to make a documentary about West’s journey from Chicago’s South Side to the North Pole of the rap world — the “Hoop Dreams” of hip-hop — and his subject couldn’t have been happier to oblige. Even then, years before anyone would take him seriously as an MC, West was convinced that he was destined for greatness; that it would serve history to have a camera on him at all times. “I got ass-per-ations,” is how he would put it at the time.
West’s mythic confidence gradually became a fact of life after he unhinged his wired-shut jaw and began swallowing the culture whole over the last two decades. But back then it felt like Simmons had discovered a new molecular element, and he wasn’t going to let it out of his sight. The covalent bond that formed between filmmaker and subject soon grew into a brotherhood, and the infinity pool of footage that resulted from that brotherhood doesn’t merely take you inside the formative years of the 21st century’s most inescapable artist, it also implies the story of a lifelong friendship that formed in the margins between self-belief and self-immolation.
West is too much of a black hole to be the subject of a Steve James movie. His compulsive need to suck up every last atom of oxygen in the room — whether that room is the scuzzy home studio where he wrote the beat for Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” or the stadium inside Madison Square Garden — has always made West an ill-fitting avatar for anyone but himself, and precluded the possibility that Simmons and his co-director Chike Ozah would be able to shape this project into the “Hoop Dreams” of anything.
Needless to say, he hasn’t, though stretches of the final cut (e.g. the bittersweet moments shared between West and his late mother Donda) bring the rapper back down to Earth in a way that make it easier to see him as a product of his environment. All told, the raw and addictive “jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy” is both a little more than the movie inspired it, and also a lot less. On the one hand, Simmons’ personal attachment to the growing supernova at the center of this story results in the unique intimacy of a film that shares the fortune of its subject. On the other hand, that same codependency makes it hard for Simmons to maintain perspective once West’s fortunes start to turn. The big-hearted man behind the camera loves the volatile guy in front of it too much to look directly at the person he became (the same person he knew would eventually be watching this), and “jeen-yuhs” suffers as a result. By the time it’s over, the fact that Kanye cut Simmons out of his life for nearly 15 years is just a part of the reason why this film only finds a thimble of insight for every mile of its event horizon.
Of course, it’s actually three films. Or maybe it’s none? It would be a simple question of semantics if not for the fact that each of its 90-minute parts is shaped like an episode of a TV show, complete with teases and recaps. Either way, it’s four-and-a-half hours — while far short of the seven that West is heard telling someone that it will eventually run — are still long enough to make “Hoop Dreams” feel like a YouTube video by comparison. You won’t get impatient: Most of “jeen-yuhs” pulses with the same carpe diem energy that inspires West to bust into Roc-A-Fella Records uninvited and individually blare his demo for everyone in the office, or to grab footage for Simmons and Ozah’s career-making “Through the Wire” video in the middle of an oral surgery appointment to repair his jaw after the car crash that almost killed him.
West’s mental illness has been well-documented and widely misunderstood in equal measure, and while no mention of it is made here until we get to the footage from 2018, his younger self appears to be in full control of the mania that would later get away from him. “I be needing a translator real bad sometimes,” he says in the film’s very first scene (a flash-forward from 2020), and so much of “jeen-yuhs” is guided by Simmons’ desire to provide that service for his friend. You can hear it between the lines of Simmons’ narration, which is somehow all the more affectionate for its unwavering monotone. This is a movie that wants to cut a hole through the past two decades and show people the man who West was, and might still be underneath. It wants you to awe at his hustle (you will), be inspired by how he forced the world to see him in the same heavenly light in which he sees himself (it’s complicated), and recognize that West’s polarizing complexities are what make him such an invaluable artist (unconvincing in a documentary that doesn’t really grapple with its subject’s dark side until it grows large enough to shadow every conversation about him).
That Simmons is so protective over West is particularly heartrending because the rapper never seems to reciprocate Simmons’ reverent friendship; instead, he appears to use the camera between them as permission to treat their relationship as a one-way street. It’s possible that the dynamic changed when Simmons wasn’t rolling, but it seems like Simmons was always rolling. For all of the doubt that filming a subject like West invites onto the authenticity of their performance, Simmons’ ever-watchful eye doesn’t find much light between the rapper’s private self and his public persona. The genius that West demands everyone to identify by name is fed by an ego that no one could mistake, and while the rapper’s innate watchability brings a thrill to every scene (there are too many highlights to choose from, but the bit where he plays “Through the Wire” for Pharrell Williams leaps to mind), it’s a breath of fresh air whenever life affords Simmons a minute to focus on himself.
The importance of family runs deep in “jeen-yuhs,” not only because of West’s connection to his mom (and, less clearly, his dad), but also because of the family that Simmons creates for himself in the background. His daughter is born 2.5 months early during the same year of Donda West’s death, and the opening minutes of this film’s third part are cross-stitched in a way that suggests life emerging from the shadow of death, and one family existing in the shadow of another. Simmons looks in the mirror just long enough for us to infer that his wife and daughter returned his love in a way that Kanye never could, and allowed him to strike a balance between life and work that Kanye never has.
The first two parts of “jeen-yuhs” are so riveting because Simmons is able to shoot West’s ascent in extreme close-up; part III might have been able to sustain that intimacy had Simmons been more comfortable with his own position as a subject in the film. As it stands, the documentary never recovers from the whiplash of West’s decision to cut ties with his old crew, even if that comes off as less a deliberate “fuck you” than a byproduct of his grieving process. Whereas the first three hours of “jeen-yuhs” are composed almost entirely of first-hand footage, much of the last 90 minutes are cobbled together with the help of MTV News, TMZ, Instagram, and so forth. We know this part of the story already, and it’s frustrating to watch it unfold from such a generic perspective later in the same film that shows us a young Kanye fiddling with his retainer.
Simmons and West eventually “reconciled,” allowing the filmmaker to follow his old friend on a tour of Takashi Murakami’s studio in Japan, on a private jet to visit a ceramicist in California, and later to the Wyoming compound where he assembled his Sunday Services (brace for the extraordinary image of Justin Bieber zoning out in an airplane hangar while “Seven Samurai” screens against a massive wall on the background). This renewed access is tinged with the queasy tension of someone who suspects their buddy got body-snatched. Simmons isn’t much interested in unpacking how or why it feels that way — he broadly attributes everything to God’s plan, leaning on platitudes at West’s most disconcerting moments, and even turning the camera off during one especially unmoored rant out of respect for his friend — but that leaves precious little evidence to back up his claim that Jesus’ grace is helping him and West to turn their pain into power.
The disconnect between what we see (West fist-pumping after every word of a Tucker Carlson monologue) and how Simmons interprets it for us (Kanye is complicated!) is all the more intriguing for that flagrant disconnect, but it also provides a fitting grace note for a documentary that shows us remarkable things despite its unwillingness to look at them closely. It’s a documentary that shares the same name as a pet West’s family had when he was a child — a dog named Genius because he could escape any cage that was placed around him. After almost five hours that flew by like one and could have held my attention for 10 more just like them, “jeen-yuhs” left me less curious about how we might be able to escape from Kanye West than it did about how Kanye West might be able to escape from himself.
Part I of “jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It will be available to stream on Netflix in three weekly installments beginning on Wednesday, February 16.