CNN)A superstar origin story, “jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy” is the product of an extraordinary bet made nearly a quarter-century ago: that young, then-fledgling music producer Kanye West would become a Grammy-winning headliner. Yet that front-row view of West’s meteoric rise in the first two parts of this docu-trilogy then gives way to the public figure, whose quirks, contradictions and headline-making actions complicate and muddy that narrative arc.In the broadest terms, there’s something fascinating about this Netflix presentation, which had its roots in Clarence “Coodie” Simmons identifying West’s potential in 1998, while hosting a public-access show in Chicago.Within a few years, Simmons had essentially become West’s videographer and companion, chronicling the ups and downs of his efforts to win the respect of Roc-a-Fella Records and launch a solo career.
It’s an unusually intimate portrait, following West to shows, into the studio, during his recovery from a car accident, and as he hangs out with his late mom, Donda. “He plays tracks like Michael Jordan shoots free throws,” Donda says.
That also includes a who’s-who of cameos by those who crossed his path, from Mos Def to Pharrell Williams, Jamie Foxx to Jay-Z.Along the way, Simmons — who narrates the docuseries, and shares directing credit with Chike Ozah — details his own journey, which included becoming a father and giving up the project at West’s request, before returning years later and eventually putting it together as hands were idled by Covid.”Every great story begins with a vision,” Simmons notes near the outset, and clearly, West saw himself as a major presence before he had the resume to back that up, then delivered on those promises.
Still, as Simmons acknowledges, the film ideally would have ended on Grammy night in 2005, when West’s “The College Dropout” won best rap album, paying off on the talent the filmmaker recognized early on. Instead, “A Kanye Trilogy” lingers through the complications of West’s life, from embracing Donald Trump to his bizarre 2020 presidential run to saying that the oppression that Blacks have experienced, given its centuries-long duration, “sounds like a choice.”In another video, West sits entranced watching footage of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, with whom he sounds unfamiliar, because the host is defending him, although Carlson is basically just using West’s statements in order to criticize liberals.Simmons doesn’t pretend to be an impartial observer, particularly in those more recent sequences. At one point he chooses to turn off the camera as West embarks on an extended rant, saying that he at times found it difficult watching him on TV, “knowing he had issues with his mental health.“Part three reflects that tension, offering rapid-fire glimpses of West controversies. In the process, “A Kanye Trilogy” shifts from the leisurely pace employed during his hungry years — letting long conversations and exchanges play out — to fast-forwarding through what’s unfolded since he achieved stardom. (For those wondering, West’s estranged wife, Kim Kardashian, is glimpsed briefly, but not in a significant way.)At more than 4 ½ hours over its three parts — subtitled “Vision,” “Purpose” and “Awakening” — “jeen-yuhs” is already the equivalent of a director’s cut. Yet the film has value as what plays like a sort-of real-life version of “A Star is Born,” including the familiar notion that artistic genius comes at a cost.
“I knew he was destined for greatness,” Simmons says, and West’s road to that pinnacle is first remarkable, then uneven once he achieved stardom. As the filmmaker says, “A Kanye Trilogy” could have — and just in terms of presenting a more cohesive story, probably should have — ended there.“jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy” premieres Feb. 16 on Netflix.
Review by Brian Lowry, CNN