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- Reviewed from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy will be available to stream on Netflix in three parts, the first arriving 16 February.
It’s an irresistible premise for a documentary: two decades in the life of one of the world’s most successful, influential and controversial musicians, told using intimate and rarely-seen footage. But what is advertised as an up-close-and-personal evening with Kanye West turns out to be a double-header gig with the film’s director. Coodie, who co-directed jeen-yuhs with Chike Ozah, and filmed almost all of its footage, is the one constant in this odyssey through the life of Kanye. He’s its biggest strength and its biggest weakness.
Over the span of jeen-yuhs’s three ‘acts’, we follow Kanye (who is now legally named Ye, but referred to as Kanye throughout the film) from the moment Coodie first encounters him until the almost-present. Sensing future greatness in the young Chicagoan, who was then an up-and-coming producer who’d picked up buzz for producing a Jay-Z track in 2001, Coodie abandons his own ambitions to pursue comedy in order to record what he and Kanye see as the latter’s inevitable rise to stardom, amassing footage to eventually be turned into a documentary. Coodie narrates the films, grounding events in his personal recollections and providing a personal viewpoint which avoids any claims to objectivity.
Acts one and two comprise footage from 2001 to 2005, in which Kanye fought his way to a record deal with his dream label Roc-A-Fella Records, and then had to fight just as hard to become a respected member of the Roc crew. jeen-yuhs’s best moments, which provide the frisson of being-thereness that Beatles fans were given by last year’s Get Back, are in these first two acts, where we find Kanye in the studio laying down future classics. Kanye’s enthusiasm is infectious in these early years as he eloquently and confidently monologues on how he will revolutionise rap.
The footage is remarkable for showing Kanye in a private space that is a world away from the equally intimate – but also highly public – outbursts for which he is now better known. We take frequent trips to Kanye’s mother Donda’s apartment, where she offers him advice and encouragement; these moments show how significant her influence on Kanye was, and contextualise just how devastating her premature death in 2007 would be to him. Another key scene – perhaps given greater runtime and emphasis than is truly necessary – is of Kanye at the dentist, having wires on his jaws removed. (Kanye was in a life-threatening car crash in 2002, broke his jaw in three places, and wrote the song Through the Wire about the ordeal while recovering. The song’s video, co-directed by Coodie – which uses some of the footage we see here – would become pivotal to Kanye’s early career.)
Act two crescendos on the night where Kanye’s debut album The College Dropout made him a triple Grammy winner, revisiting the iconic closing line to his ‘Best Rap Album’ speech: “Everybody wanted to know what I’d do if I didn’t win. I guess we’ll never know.” A more confident filmmaker, one with a greater remove from the material, may have closed the book with that mic-drop moment, a star having been born. But having a personal relationship with Kanye, Coodie stuck around and kept filming; the rest of his footage forms the film’s much weaker third act.
Inevitably, things begin to change between the pair, epitomised by a Grammy afterparty where Kanye repeatedly calls Coodie by the wrong name. Soon, access to Kanye’s inner circle becomes increasingly sporadic. When Coodie isn’t there, there’s no footage, and act three is structured around these absences. The years from 2007 to 2013 are skipped through in less time than a trip to the dentist; My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, heralded by many as one of the greatest rap albums of all time, flies past in a single mention. We see the production of Kids See Ghosts but not Ye (both recorded in 2018), not because Coodie has deemed the former more important during editing, but because it was a recording session that he was able to access. Equally, large parts of Kanye’s personal life, including his marriage to Kim Kardashian and his hospitalisation due to mental health concerns, can only be covered via familiar news clips and voiceover.
The larger gaps in the film’s timelines are plugged by moments from Coodie’s own life, including the birth of his daughter Ivy and death of his father. These serve as a reminder that, for Coodie, this is as much his own life story as it is Kanye’s. jeen-yuhs may be Kanye’s life, but it’s Coodie’s life’s work.