★★★★☆ Film review
Just hours before this intimate biographical documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, Kanye West suddenly declared his objection. The rapper, producer and unlikely US presidential candidate announced, via Instagram, that he was demanding full access to the editing room so that he could control the material and be “in charge of my own image’’.
To anyone who has watched the film, West’s protest makes no sense, unless he was hoping to shape it into something slightly more hagiographical. Although, given it’s a documentary that suggests God selected Kanye West for greatness, this hardly seems possible.
The film is indecently watchable nonetheless. West’s chest-beating braggadocio seems always on the verge of self-parody and is oddly engrossing, especially when captured on camera at a Chicago birthday party in 1998. Here, the unknown 21-year-old fledgling producer is already fantasising about world domination. We know this because he’s filmed by friend, former comedian and the documentary’s co-director Coodie Simmons, who decides, from that moment onwards, to chart West’s career rise over the next two decades — the movie was apparently cut down from 320 hours of workable footage.
The hard graft is the subject of much of the first hour. We get Kanye rapping in his New York apartment, fiddling with future tracks and then glad-handing record company bosses, desperate to be signed.
In one bravura sequence, very Spinal Tap, he storms unannounced into the offices of Roc-A-Fella Records and begins rapping All Falls Down to bored assistants. In another he muses about the impact of his mother, Donda, on his sophisticated lyrical prowess, saying deadpan: “My mother’s an English teacher and she used to cultivate me, and instil a lot of shit in me.”
The sweet scenes with Donda, however, are the most affecting and constitute the few times when West stows the swaggering demi-god persona. Mostly, though, he’s on an inexorable rise that culminates here with a Roc-A-Fella deal and a triumphant Chicago concert where he’s officially anointed by Jay-Z.
The film is only the first part of three (the trilogy runs to four and a half hours in total). And the smart move from Sundance was not to premiere the other two — those who have seen them suggest they become more sanitised and less intimate. This episode, for all its gush and bluster, works best as a portrait of vulnerability, of talent in the wilderness, and of a tentative figure playing megastar to a camera and to an audience of one. It doesn’t need a recut.
On Netflix from February 16