The recent onslaught of pop music documentaries released in recent years share a common thread in their attempt to regain a sense of understanding or control, years after their muddled narrative took shape into something largely unrecognizable. There is a sense of trust and closeness created by the handpicking of exclusive, never-before-seen archival footage, either shared of the artist’s own careful will or by an insider operating close enough to them to capture raw and unfiltered material with ease of access. Often condensing decades of personal development into just a few hours, in the form of films or short series, how do these documentaries effectively reclaim the ever-changing narratives of their subjects, if they can?
In the Netflix documentary series Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy, directors Clarence ‘Coodie’ Simmons and Chike Ozah are stumbling towards an answer. In a total of four and a half hours, crafted from a goldmine of more than 330 hours of archival footage captured over 21 years, the filmmaking duo chronicles Kanye West’s transformation from rising Chicago rapper – one with relentless determination – to an unstable cultural figure. The series puts into context just how much he wanted to become an invaluable and influential star, how he got there, and how he fell apart along the way. How do you nail an artist who considers himself perpetually misunderstood and refuses to move at any speed below the maximum speed? It seems that after a certain point you can’t anymore.
For most of his career, West has been something of a moving target. Jeen Yuhs itself arrived in the midst of a change. In the weeks leading up to his arrival, the rapper took aim at Kim Kardashian, Pete Davidson and Billie Eilish on Instagram — just a few of his many chaotic and very public implosions on the app lately. “I Miss Old Kanye” has been a running gag for a few years now, but even Simmons turns off the camera when he catches up with West during his failed presidential campaign and realizes that the dynamic they established 20 years ago has completely changed. . “I’ve never shot that side of Kanye,” the director told BBC Radio 1Xtra. “It was just uncomfortable.” Simmons and Ozah declined West’s very public request for the final cut and approval of the docuseries on the grounds that “for it to resonate, people need to see certain things.” And yet, large portions of the final two-thirds of the trilogy are filled with filler that has nothing to do with the rapper.
As a filmmaker, it may be better to have an instinct for when to stop filming than for your subject to have to tell you to turn off the cameras, but the thought process that plays into that decision is heavily influenced by the relationship between the people in front of and behind the camera. When Charli XCX shot his documentary alone together in quarantine, she and her housemates controlled the stopping and starting of filming. Its directors, Bradley Bell and Pablo Jones-Soler, designed the film from the images they received at the end of each day. Had they been physically present, they might have kept the cameras rolling when the singer called for a time out. Perhaps this captured moment of emotional vulnerability wouldn’t have made it into the film, anyway. But as an artist who’s more online than most, Charli’s threshold for how much she’s willing to share not only shapes what we see in the documentary, but also the lines drawn of what we don’t see.
The conversations retained from these films and series are often as revealing as those included. It refers to this idea of wanting to create something in accordance with the artist’s story, whether it is in progress or in reconstruction. There’s a crucial element of grain of salt involved for audiences, especially for YouTube docu-series like Demi Lovato’s jaw-dropping vulnerability. dance with the devil or the revelation of Justin Bieber Seasons. Both were heavily shaped by manager Scooter Braun, and consequently tainted with an oddly promotional feel, like a well-concluded victory lap just in time for the album to come out.