Film looks back at Ye as a young, awkward, audacious Chicago rapper
The three-part ‘jeen-yuhs’ trilogy tracks the superstar’s career with 20 years’ worth of intimate footage, starting with his origins as Kanye West, a producer with a flair for freestyle.
Like a “Get Back” for millennials, “jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy” gifts fans with three films of never-before-seen intimate footage of a musical genius. While the Beatles documentary focused on a time capsule of just a few weeks, “jeen-yuhs” (pronounced “genius”) offers the fans footage from filmmaker Coodie Simmons’ staggering, unprecedented access to Ye’s origins, spanning a 20-year period, on a collection of 330 mini DV tapes.
The intimacy of the video footage could have only been captured by a close friend or family. Says Simmons during a Time Studios interview: “[Ye] became a brother to me during this experience.”
Simmons was working as a stand-up comedian who was being mentored by Bernie Mac in the early 2000s when he met the rapper, then called Kanye West, at a performance with his group, the Go-Getters, and was blown away. Partially inspired by Steve James’ classic Chicago basketball documentary “Hoop Dreams,” Simmons picked up a camera and began to document West’s rising star, eventually following him to New York, where he met his creative partner Chike Ozah.
The first film of the trilogy, “Vision,” premiered Sunday at the Sundance Film Festival and is coming to theaters on Feb. 10 and then Netflix on Feb. 16. “Vision,” like Ye himself, is rooted firmly in Chicago, chronicling not only his glow-up, but the rise of hip-hop through Simmons’ public access TV show “Channel Zero.”
An outrageous level of music royalty casually saunters across the screen, including Run-DMC, Lil Bow Wow, Snoop Dogg, Foxy Brown, Da Brat and many others, and Chicago viewers will recognize classic haunts like Leon’s BBQ, Harold’s Chicken and the end of the Red Line (or the beginning, depending on which side of town you hail from) at 95th.
In the middle of it all stands a somewhat awkward, earnest, baby-faced Kanye West, creating beats for other artists, while remaining steadfastly confident that he will indeed one day become a star, even as record label after label brushes him off.
The preternatural level of confidence in the face of repeated rejection that West demonstrates is not only baffling, it can also come off as arrogant — a fact that he is surprisingly self-aware about. But the fact is, he is Babe Ruth, calling his home run, and when he freestyles, it’s clear that his talent is stunningly undeniable. He’s earned the right.
Some will be surprised to discover that West is refreshingly earnest and vulnerable, without pretension or artifice (including a chuckle-inducing pit stop at a Times Square newsstand for a Black Tail magazine.) In one scene, he’s genuinely hurt by a rap beef with a friend, producer Dug Infinite, yet mature enough to express his feelings and confront them head on. Petty arguments aside, he’s a man who knows exactly where his loyalties lie. West declares: “At the end of the day, I don’t owe anybody nothing except for my mother.”
For those whose conception of Ye may be limited to some of his less-than-flattering recent headlines, the first movie — especially the introduction of his mother Donda — is a revelation.
Donda inhabits the gentleness and encouragement of a kindergarten teacher, rolled up with the wisdom and soothing manner of Maya Angelou, as she coos over his latest bling, recites his childhood raps from memory, and casually muses, “You can stay on the ground and be in the air at the same time.” In that moment, we see a single Black mother shoring up her child against a country hostile to Black men. West is rightly completely devoted to her, and the moment heartbreakingly foreshadows the gradual unmooring of his stability that occurs after her untimely death in 2007.
With this look backward, the filmmakers hope that viewers will be inspired by their ensemble creation, and the camaraderie they all shared as artists coming up together since the mid-’90s. “jeen-yuhs” writer J-Ivy says of that heady time period: “There was a Chicago Renaissance happening and there were a lot of dreamers going after their passion. We want [viewers] to know their dreams can come true when you exercise your gifts and live in your purpose. Your genius can come to the forefront.”