The cinematic companion to West's new album is aesthetically breathtaking but ultimately fails to achieve transcendence
The majestic Roden Crater seems almost too apt for the setting of Kanye West’s short film Jesus Is King, a companion piece to the star’s new album of the same name. A hugely ambitious work-in-progress from American ‘light and space’ artist James Turrell, the project is in the process of turning a mile-wide, 400,000-year-old volcanic crater deep in the Arizona desert into a breathtaking naked-eye observatory. “A gateway to observe light, time, and space,” as the artist puts it, a chance to “bring the light of the heavens down to Earth”.
First, there’s the obvious punchline about shared punctuality, or lack of it. Turrell’s project has been more than 40 years in the making, while West himself is no stranger to release schedule re-tinkering – although Turrell’s postponement of his project’s launch from 2011 to 2024 somehow managed to out-Kanye Kanye. But the work also addresses many of the ideas that interest the rapper at this point in his career: a search for the sublime, the striving for a better future, the awe-inspiring power of nature, as well as a stripped-back, minimalist approach.
Kanye was so moved by the artist’s work (which, fun fact, also inspired Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’ video) that he tweeted last December: “Went to visit the James Turrell crater two days ago. This is life changing. We all will live in Turrell spaces,” before donating $10 million to the project little over a month later. There’s no wonder that Turrell let him shoot his film there then, and the setting itself provides the perfect backdrop for West’s current spiritual quest, with Kanye flying his Sunday Service choir out to the astounding monument for a special performance of new music, re-workings of old tracks and gospel classics, all captured on film for this 30-minute long picture.
Now, Kanye’s recent religious awakening shouldn’t come as a complete surprise, even if the headlines that accompany it do. West has interweaved religion into his work from the very beginning, from ‘Jesus Walks’ to ‘Devil In A New Dress’ to ‘Ultralight Beam’, via the debatably blasphemous ‘I Am A God’ from the almost definitely sacrilegious ‘Yeezus’. However, on his new gospel-inspired record ‘Jesus Is King’, we get the most intimate, and sincere, glimpse of what being a Christian means to Kanye. “I bow down to the King upon the throne / My life is His, I’m no longer my own,” he raps on ‘Closed On Sunday’, while also recently telling Zane Lowe in an interview: “Now that I’m in service to Christ, my job is to spread the gospel, to let people know what Jesus has done for me.”
This abandonment of the self is plain to see in the Jesus Is King film, and it’s striking that, for the most part, there’s a notable absence of West himself. Kanye attempts to shed his ego and doesn’t really appear at all for the first stretch of the movie. You see, this isn’t supposed to be about Kanye West, the superstar, but is instead intended as a dedication to God’s wondrous creations, whether that’s the world’s natural beauty or human wonder. We alternate between live footage, slightly ham-fisted onscreen religious quotations and the odd lush scenic shot (mountains, deers and dandelions among them), these latter atmospheric washes reminiscent of director Nick Knight’s previous team-up with West for the equally ornate and ostentatious ‘Bound 2’ video.
While it may share its title with West’s new album, Jesus Is King actually feels more like a cinematic version of one of West’s Sunday Service performances than a direct accompaniment to its namesake work (music from the record itself is used sparingly, perhaps a result of Kanye not finalising its track-list until the 11th hour). Just like with his invigorating religious performances, which included a triumphant hillside set at Coachella, he allows his band, and the music itself, to come to the fore. Despite Kanye still being the obvious draw here (when was the last time you saw hypebeasts queuing to see a religious mood piece at an IMAX cinema?), the lack of West actually works to its advantage.
It’s these live shots that dazzle above everything else and Knight’s capturing of the Sunday Service choir is nothing short of stunning. In one early scene, the choir members perform next to Turrell’s grand staircase while cast entirely in shadow. The suggested meaning is that the self isn’t important in this moment of group worship, while later they’re shown swaying and clapping in complete unison, their connectivity and togetherness entrancing, almost hypnotic. Elsewhere, we see the group’s conductor lost in devout passion, followed by an extended close-up shot showing the joyous face of a choir member, who is unable to prevent herself from grinning.
Kanye recently said that listening to “80 people singing about Jesus” while making his album was akin to the “best luxury shock treatment possible”. It’s not the religious devotion that’s the most moving part of the film though, but the communal, transcendent and cathartic power of music itself, be it holy or secular. This is no more evident than in a tender, shared moment at the end of one performance when, as the lights dim, the choir embrace each other, several members physically moved to tears after unloading all within them.
Then, 20 minutes in, Kanye emerges onto centre stage. Having previously made the viewer work to spot his presence, his voice just one among the crowd, he emerges singing ‘Street Lights’ to himself as he literally sweeps the floor (God’s work sometimes being very similar to that of a janitor, evidently), and soon joins a scaled-back band at a piano for a stripped-back and poignant rendition of the familiar tune. It’s a gratifying moment for fans, whose relief at finally getting to see the star they came for is understandable, but one that ultimately feels out of place with all that has come before. In fact, it’s almost as if Kanye can’t help but insert himself into the spotlight at the very last moment, with the film ending on a close-up shot of West cradling his son Psalm while serenading his newborn with an a cappella of his new record’s ‘Use This Gospel’.
As with much of Kanye’s latter-day output, the film frustrates as much as it delivers. Yeezy himself once said: “I have showed people that I understand how to make perfect… But I’m not here to make perfect, I’m here to crack the pavement and make new grounds.” Jesus Is King is ultimately indicative of an artist no longer inclined to take the easy route, one more interested in roughly-sketched ideas than precision-cut execution.
- Read more: Kanye West – Jesus Is King review: an iconoclast sounds peaceful and fulfilled on this jubilant gospel collection
This particular screening of the movie saw the credits roll to an uncomfortable, unsure silence among the crowd, nobody really knew what to make of it. Despite its aesthetic brilliance, it fails to reach its potential and ends up lost in a struggle of what it wants to be. A live concert film? A high-gloss advert? A desktop screensaver-ready nature doc? Or simply a vehicle to enable the spouting of scripture? Instead, it’s a jarring mixture of all of the above.
‘Jesus Is King’ is screening exclusively in IMAX cinemas. For times and tickets visit JesusIsKing.IMAX.com
Director: Nick Knight
Starring: Kanye West, Sunday Service choir
Release date: 25 October 2019