***1/2 out of ****
(for general audiences)
Released: October 25, 2019 – IMAX theater exclusive
Runtime: 27 minutes
Directed by: Nick Knight
Starring: Kanye West and choir
(This one-week IMAX event ends on October 31)
Does Jesus is King come from a sincere religious conversion, or is it simply a case of the Messiah as artistic muse? Not being God, I couldn’t tell you – but it sure feels like both.
Opening with a crescendo of hallelujahs, Jesus is King – the IMAX short film produced and released by Kanye West in conjunction with his album of the same name – is a true work of gospel art. More avant-garde installation than music video, this half-hour impressionistic Praise & Worship set (framed with virtuoso sophistication by director Nick Wright) would be more at place in a modern museum than a multiplex.
It’s set, staged, and shot in the Roden Crater, a mostly-underground work-in-progress observatory at a remote location in Arizona’s Painted Desert. The film’s aerial view of the striking austere creation suggests a spaceship landing pad or the turntable for old 45 rpm vinyl singles, depending on your Rorschach response.
It’s designed and built by James Turrell, a 76-year-old Quaker who looks more like a cowboy fresh off the ranch (though we never see him here) than a visionary artist obsessed with light and space. His Roden Crater is a veritable Abraham’s bosom for Kanye’s world class vocal ensemble, a spiritual chorus that is very much alive.
Yes, a spiritual chorus, a.k.a. not the album’s more radio friendly hip hop tracks. In fact, with the exception of the title song, there doesn’t seem to be any crossover between the two projects – and the film is so much the better for it.
To whatever degree the LP may come off as gospel appropriation to some, Jesus is King the IMAX presentation is far from some calculated Yeezy rebrand or narcissistic ego trip. Kanye himself doesn’t even appear until halfway through, and even then he’s so not the focus of the experience that you’d completely miss him if his silhouette wasn’t so familiar.
Simply put, Jesus is King showcases genuine worship unleashed with conviction, but of a kind that takes form through a neo-liturgic expression (and could possibly try the patience of evangelicals and rap fans alike). This Gospel/Classical fusion — which includes singing the lyrics Jesus! Is! King! to Carmina Burana‘s “O Fortuna” — is absolutely transcendent, taking us through different moods that range from soulful to contemplative to joyous.
And it’s all about the music.
Jesus is King is not some gateway for West to soapbox evangelize, or to spout whatever spiritual stream-of-consciousness strikes his unpredictable fancy. The only preaching here is read, not heard, as Kanye leaves doctrine to Scripture itself. New Testament verses appear on-screen as interstitials, ones that plainly affirm the Kingship of Christ but also reflect the joy of Kanye’s salvation. It’s powerful, for both the Christian faithful and the art aficionado.
Look, I can’t tell you how “legit” Kanye’s Christianity is. (I’m increasingly humbled by simply trying to work out my own.) Jesus is King may very well mark a turning point in West’s life and career. . .or it may be one more fleeting than Dylan’s three-album Gospel Period. Who knows? I certainly don’t.
But so far as such “legitimacy” relates to appreciating this film, this album, and this moment, I honestly don’t care. Dylan no longer professes a Christian faith, but those albums still resonate. They always will.
So will this, and the reason is simple.
With Jesus is King, Kanye West engages his audience as a mature artist, but then comes to the Lord purely as a child.