This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
The Pitch: Before his marriage to (and subsequent divorce from) Kim Kardashian, before his abortive 2020 presidential campaign, before the wild tweets and outrageous behavior that would define his public persona in the 2020s, there was just Kanye West and the music. From the beginning, the Atlanta-born, Chicago-raised producer turned rapper knew he was going to be one of the greatest musicians of all time; his first album, 2004’s The College Dropout, is studded with lines to that effect (“I was born to be different”).
But it took the world a while to catch up with his ambition, and the problems didn’t stop there even after he finally broke through. By his side for the last twenty years was Clarence “Coodie” Simmons, a comedian turned filmmaker who quickly saw something in the 21-year-old West and started following him around with a video camera for the next two decades, eventually involving his “Through the Wire” music video co-director Chike Ozah.
The results add up to jeen-yuhs, a three-part epic docuseries styled after Hoop Dreams, another lengthy fly-on-the-wall account of poor Black Chicagoans trying to make a name for themselves. Unlike the young basketball hopefuls of Steve James’ opus, however, West actually made it, and it’s that rise to fame that Coodie & Chike chronicle in exhaustive depth.
Part I: Vision: As of this writing, only Part I of the doc — subtitled vision — premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, with the other two parts being made available when the whole thing comes to Netflix later this month. But even in this first hour and a half, Coodie & Chike have painted a staggering blast-from-the-past account of West’s origins, offering a glimpse of the man in his pre-fame stages of ambition.
Drawing from reams of archival footage, mostly fly-on-the-wall B-roll Coodie took while he hung around with West in recording studios, record label offices, and on the streets of Chicago, jeen-yuhs is remarkable in its ability to humanize a man who’s long since dehumanized himself with his self-made comparisons to Jesus Christ and bizarre diss tracks about Pete Davidson.
It’s also interspersed by lilting, sleepy narration from Coodie himself, inserting his own perspective into the narrative as a far-from-impartial observer. It’s admittedly a bit distracting, reading as an attempt to conflate Kanye’s success with his own; there’s a feeling that, somewhere in this lengthy narrative fabric, he wants to position himself as the film’s co-lead rather than one of its authors.
When the film veers into Coodie’s particular asides, it loses focus: one gets the impression we’re leading up to a presumed fallout between filmmaker and subject once West makes good. (This is the trouble with only reviewing one-third of a documentary: seeds are sown that may be reaped in future installments.)