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What’s Past is Prologue With Kanye West in ‘jeen-yuhs’ (Review)

In recent years, the mention of Kanye West’s name has become an automatic tune out for me.

His ridiculous antics, including launching a failed Presidential campaign, might be comical if they weren’t indicative of a man struggling with mental illness surrounded by people who enable his worst impulses.

A new documentary film series from Netflix takes us back to the start.

Filmmakers Clarence “Coodie” Simmons and Chike Ozah have taken 21 years worth of intimate footage and given us the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s all here, perhaps much to Kanye’s chagrin. Right before Act 1 premiered at Sundance last month, he declared that he must have final cut. As recently as this Monday, Kanye posted online that he thought all the narration should be redone by Drake (in the film, it’s used sparingly and always Simmons’ voice).

A still from ‘jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy,’ courtesy of Netflix

Simmons hosted a public access show on Chicago cable in the mid-90s called “Channel Zero” that focused on the city’s hip-hop scene. After being introduced to an 18-year-old Kanye in 1995, it didn’t take long to hone in on his talents. Inspired by the film ‘Hoop Dreams,’ Simmons began dedicating his time to filming whatever Kanye was up to and ended up following him to New York. It was a gamble that paid off in spades.

Act 1: Vision

Act 1 shows Kanye’s initial success as a beatmaker and producer, but he was not satisfied working for other people. His goal was to get signed and release his own album. This part of the film is everything that happens before getting his deal with Roc-A-Fella Records. Some of the best moments include Kanye’s mother Donda, whose tragic death in 2007 really put him into a downward spiral. It’s clear to see the closeness of their relationship and what a champion she was for his career.

We watch Kanye’s quest to be featured on MTV News’ “You Hear It First” – a reminder of the power that network once held in popular culture and the quest for fame.

It feels like a revelation to watch an artist we now know as a massive star trying everything he possibly can to be heard. As viewers, we’re reminded often that believing in yourself is the biggest hurdle.

Act 2: Purpose

This 90-minute portion of the film hones in on what happened after Kanye did finally get Dame Dash to sign him to Roc-A-Fella. It’s kind of hard to imagine now, but the team at the label didn’t have much interest in Kanye as a solo artist. They wanted him making beats and producing and didn’t expect much out of him as an MC. We watch as Kanye essentially steals studio time whenever he can to get his own songs recorded because label won’t give him a budget. He pays for his first video entirely out of pocket because he just can’t drum up internal interest.

Since Simmons is with him nearly every waking moment with the cameras recording, he captures so many moments that you can’t believe are archived for posterity. This includes his post-accident recovery and many trips to the dentist where his jaw got wired shut right on the cusp of fame.

We watch as “The College Dropout” finally is unleashed on the world and follow the promo cycle all the way until it ends up winning Best Rap Album at the Grammy Awards.

Act 3: Awakening

I have yet to see the final installment of the film and, knowing what I know, I’m almost afraid to watch it. The first two acts are ridiculously inspirational and show an artist who believes in himself more than anyone else does. His hunger to be heard and taken seriously led to his biggest creative breakthroughs. I was reminded so many times of why I used to love him so much. Sadly, I have a feeling that footage from this last segment may remind me of why I no longer do.

‘jeen-yuhs’ is filled with unforgettable footage, most of which has never been seen before. In fact, pretty much the only parts that have been seen are those that were in Coodie & Chike’s video for Kanye’s first single, “Through The Wire.” Over 320 hours worth of tapes from over two decades were distilled down to a total running time of 276 minutes and none of it feels wasted.

Whether you have always been a fan or haven’t been one in some time, ‘jeen-yuhs’ is a powerfully brilliant examination of the creative process.

Act 1 of ‘jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy’ plays in theaters nationwide tonight. It will then premiere on Netflix starting February 16. Act 2 premieres on February 23 while the final part, Act 3 will begin streaming on March 2. This review is based on screening copies that remain labelled “work in progress” of the first two acts, but Netflix has not yet provided access to the final act.