But the movie is very typical of West lately, in that, like the unfinished dye anecdote, it treats a tricky concept as a simple matter of aesthetics and sensations. In the Lowe interview, West said that his support of Donald Trump just came from how he feels. His fealty to Jesus Christ appears similarly visceral—and he’s trying to spread his faith-feeling. But it’s oddly cold.
Jesus Is King was filmed in the Roden Crater, the Arizona landmark where the artist James Turrell has been building a large-scale installation since 1977. Turrell’s complex of tunnels, portals, and chambers remains uncompleted and closed to the public, though a recent $10 million donation from West means that it’s now supposed to open in a few years. For the time being, those curious will need to be satisfied with this West movie, set in and around what resembles a sleek, empty water tank in the desert.
The film opens on a black screen soundtracked by a fast, whirling chorus of “Hallelujah”s. Electronic bass—chunky and crackling, just as West’s go-to producer Mike Dean’s bass sounds always are—joins in. A dun-colored disk enters the frame and then shrinks. The camera is pulling out, up, looking down from above something. It’s a god’s-eye view of the skylight at the center of the Roden Crater—which, incidentally, looks like the eyeball of a god. Four short beams jut out from the central circle structure. They recall a cross.
The film’s ethos has been established: For 35 minutes or so, you shall watch and listen, looking for shapes, appreciating resemblances, waiting to be struck by awe, and sometimes actually being struck by it. The frame dilates and expands in circular and oval stencils around the footage on-screen. Some passages of the film play like HD nature screen savers: brooding mountains and clouds, or the capillary structures of dandelions. Other segments focus on West’s troupe of gospel singers, who are all in monochromic clothing. West takes lead vocals only in a moving, twilit rendition of his song “Street Lights.”
Often, his singers stand arrayed under the oculus at the center of the crater, with the low-angled camera tilted upward just as their chins are, evoking the sacred neck strain of cathedral-going. One segment of the film has the frame cropped in a close circle around one woman’s joyous face as she sings, for an almost comical vibe, as if showing a living locket. Another song—the first time my neck hairs stood up—simply portrays the choir more straight-on, in rows like at church. They bob and clap in syncopated rhythm while singing the word Joy! in fast rounds. The effect is as if a black church service were scored by Philip Glass.
Glass’s grand minimalism, in fact, makes a key reference point for the whole film. West wants to overwhelm with starkness, volume, and repetition. His choral arrangements emphasize the high, shrieking end of the vocal range, and thus his quest for beauty is also a game of chicken with ear fatigue. The point is to smack you into spirituality, so that God can be perceived in a cumulus swirl or in the breathing of an infant (presumably West’s latest kid, Psalm, depicted in close-up, sleeping in his father’s arms). In short flashes, I experienced the intended holy wows. But the merch-wearing bros next to me at the theater, some of whom took pics of the screen, kept groaning and mocking the movie. Who said hypebeasts don’t think for themselves?