Kanye West’s Jesus Is King film begins with a slow zoom out which harkens to his classic “Power” video. But instead of lamenting that “no one man should have all that power,” he’s paying homage to the ultimate power of God. And instead of putting himself front and center like the “Power” video did, Kanye’s 35-minute film features his Sunday Service choir.
Perhaps the creative choices are signs of legitimate change in Kanye, who has been dipping his whole life in a vat of holy water of late. The 43-year-old artist (who believes he’s the “greatest artist of all time”) has been holding Sunday Services all year. He’s refused to perform his old music (so as not to curse) and asked his Jesus Is King collaborators to refrain from premarital sex.
Those expecting the Jesus Is King film to offer insight into his current walk with Christ will be sorely disappointed. But the fans of Jesus Is King album may enjoy what amounts to a heavily curated version of Sunday Service filmed at James Turrell’s Roden Crater installation in Arizona.
From the outset, the Nick Knight-directed film places the Sunday Service choir front and center. They perform in a sterile, oval-shaped room that resembles a chapel on the starship enterprise. There’s no dialogue or narration, just the choir at work in their flowing robes. They sing “O Fortuna” around a set of steps in the middle of the screen that are begging for Kanye make a dramatic appearance on. But he doesn’t show. The song ends, and the film shifts to a wide-shot of a vast mountain range under the clouds. It’s at junctures like this that Wright takes full advantage of the immense IMAX screen.
The immersive, bigger-is-better format also does a strong service to a cavernous rendition of “Say You Will,” with reworked lyrics that praise Jesus. Kanye was clearly aiming to craft a grandiose ode to his newfound holy father, and IMAX theaters are an ideal venue for his brand of praise. There are only three Jesus Is King tracks used in the film. Most of the choir’s selections are Black church standards such as “When I Think Of His Goodness” and “Count Your Blessings.” A viewer in an average IMAX theater can feel the organ churning under them as the choir rouses, offering a stirring experience for gospel lovers and first-timers alike.
One of the film’s most impressive visual moments is a shot of the choir conductor in the throes of performance under a beautiful blue sky which is visible through the Crater Installation’s roof. Kanye actually invited “Jesus” onstage to talk on his Yeezus tour, but this time around he opted to celebrate a divine presence through picturesque sky shots, as well as sentimental, intimate clips such as a running doe or Kanye holding his youngest son Psalm.
Kanye doesn’t make his first appearance until roughly the 15-minute mark, when he’s seen inconspicuously standing by the organ. He’s intermittently dancing and nodding his head while singing along with the choir. One wouldn’t even notice him if they weren’t paying attention. He doesn’t, for once, want the attention. The focus is on God, through the work of the gifted Sunday Service choir and the six bible quotes that flash on the screen before each of their numbers.
The one time Kanye takes the spotlight is during a stripped-down version of the existential “Street Lights.” The blue-hued scene proves that, despite all that could be said about Kanye these days, he still has flashes of undeniable musical genius. Perhaps if the film was longer, and explored more Jesus Is King tracks and high marks of his catalog (no “Jesus Walks” redux?), the film would be a more meaningful time capsule of this chapter of his life.
But for now, with no narration or explanation, Jesus Is King just is. Kanye has never had a problem opening his mouth before, which makes his silence deafening here. When your friend finds religion, they share Facebook graphics that illustrate how they feel. Kanye’s using his own personal choir.
He’s as polarizing as ever, and steeping his artistry in Christianity has widened the gulf between his fans and those who don’t care for him. This film doesn’t do much to move the meter. Those who think he’s a genius will enjoy his and Knight’s curatorial skills as well as the atmospheric renditions of some of his classic work. Those who believe he’s using Christianity to slyly reingratiate himself to the Black community will see the $1 million dollar weekend box office gross and rue that he charged people to watch a choir sing songs that they’re able to hear on Sunday for free. He’s not present enough in the film to sway either side.