First there was Taylor Swift. Then we find out he supports President Trump. Now it’s … Jesus? It’s almost impossible to talk about Kanye West without mentioning the bombastic controversies that surround him. However, West’s new IMAX short film, “Jesus is King,” asks us to try.
Kanye himself barely appears in the forty minute production. When he is on screen, he’s either in the background, not facing the camera or extremely close up. It’s almost refreshing to not see him and be reminded of outbursts like the infamous “slavery is a choice” fiasco. Instead, the film focuses on a performance by Kanye’s Sunday Service choir in the Roden Crater, an art exhibition in Arizona. Shot by British photographer Nick Knight, “Jesus is King” isn’t a music video or a concert film. It’s an avant garde personal statement.
“Jesus is King” begins with riotous choral chanting as the camera zooms out from a black screen to show the Roden complex from above, a small, white oval surrounded by red craters like a futuristic outpost on Mars. Something purely human is trying to survive in desolation.
Then, to the haunting strains of a reworked “Say You Will” from West’s 808s and Heartbreak, the camera drifts through a dark, key shaped passage inside Roden. The lyrics to this particular song are vital; “Don’t say you will, unless you will … I pray you will.” It foreshadows a troubled, existential battle that may be impossible to reconcile, which is the film’s main concern. The camera then glides up to the choir, gathered in a white atrium under a small hole in the ceiling, where they perform.
What does it all mean? Yes, Kanye West barely appears. But he’s there all the same — in every frame and in the music behind it all. The film is about Kanye West as a person and ignores West the celebrity. “Jesus is King” is a dive into West’s current headspace without the insanity of his public persona.
The choir is shot in ways that accentuate its small size when compared to the white, cavernous expanse of Roden. While their music, mostly gospel and reworked West tunes, is riveting, it can’t overpower the lifelessness inherent in the place’s vast empty halls and golden staircase to nowhere.
Just like Kanye West himself, there is staggering artistic power, but something’s very wrong. It’s not just the emptiness, either. Images of threat are sprinkled throughout, like a stormy mountain range or a blue sky filled with black cloud. Any sort of beauty is also somehow distanced — a singing woman’s face and a running doe are both shot in a narrow lens that shrinks them, zeroing in almost like a target. A frail flower trembles in the wind of a storm to West’s subdued crooning.
Jesus, whose name is mentioned almost every second, never physically appears. Knight visually associates the spoken concept of a savior with nature, artistic fulfillment and quiet. One of the film’s final shots, West clutching his infant son, is telling — it’s not about Jesus so much as it is about escape.
In “Jesus is King,” West asks if it’s possible for someone like him to escape his image and its infinite contradictions. Can he still be happy after everything he’s done and find some sort of humility? More generally, can one live a life of purity after decades of excess? Can art still be meaningful and authentic if the artist is an out-of-control addict to the media outrage machine?
The film is a bracing, honest psychological portrait shot with the cinematic complexity of alternative masters like David Lynch or Alejandro Jodorowsky. It’s not for everyone, but neither is Kanye West. To his fans, this will be revelatory. There are moments in “Jesus is King” where West is the most vulnerable he ever has been, like when he buries his head in his hands and appears to weep. It’s something to behold.
It’s comforting to know that somewhere in there, buried under the screaming ego, right wing posturing and endless tweets, there’s a true artist in Kanye West. Hopefully he comes around a bit more often.