As fans settled into AMC Lincoln Square 13 theater in Manhattan for the first public showing of Kanye West’s Jesus Is King IMAX film on Thursday evening, no one knew what to expect.
“So, is this a documentary or a movie?” one woman asked her friend. “Will we hear his new album?”
The crowd soon learned that Jesus Is King: A Kanye West Film doesn’t quite fit into any traditional box. The film began promptly at its 7 p.m. start time, with no trailers. 35 minutes later, it was over. Featuring long, dramatic shots of Kanye West’s Sunday Service choir, it’s a look at Kanye West’s religious new era, seen through an experimental lens. It feels more like a film you might find projected on the wall at a museum than something being screened at major American multiplexes across the country. If fans come looking for a Kanye West concert film, they won’t find it here (Kanye doesn’t even appear on screen until the midway point).
At opening night screenings in New York City on Thursday evening, hours before the release of Kanye’s new album of the same name, attendees left with mixed reactions to the film. Some were Kanye die-hards who left excitedly recounting their favorite moments. A larger majority departed theaters feeling confused about what they had just seen, left with more questions than ever about Kanye’s latest reinvention. Some wondered if this is an intentionally “challenging” piece of art created by a notoriously divisive artist. One thing was clear: This film isn’t for everyone.
The Complex Music team attended two separate showings of Jesus Is King: A Kanye West Film on Thursday, and put together a list of initial thoughts and takeaways, which you can see below.
There is disappointment about high ticket prices for a 35-minute film
When the screening ended after just 35 minutes, many attendees voiced disappointed that they had paid nearly $20 for such a short film (although tickets in other cities were cheaper). One fan named Amir, who was wearing a Jesus Is King crewneck sweatshirt, told Complex, “It was the biggest fucking rip-off ever.” He had seen a 20-minute preview of the film at a screening in Washington Heights three weeks before, and thought it was cool, but he hadn’t expected the final version to be so short. Another fan said, “The movie was whatever, but we spent $20 on a ticket. He knew we got played.” An attendee named Aditi added, “If it’s really all about religion, why is he charging $18 for it?” —Eric Skelton
It’s an art film that likely won’t resonate with mass audiences
Jesus Is King is an art film. It opens with repeated, piercing chants of “Hallelujah,” as the camera slowly zooms out from an aerial shot of James Turrell’s Roden Crater. There are long, disorienting shots of flowers that quiver in the wind as loud, jarring vocals echo in the background. This is a film that’s being played in the same multiplexes as movies like Joker and Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, and it’s created by one of the most successful pop artists of our time, but it isn’t an easily digestible piece of entertainment. Screened at theaters in malls across America, it will undoubtedly leave viewers scratching their heads. A few Kanye diehards and fans of artistic cinema will enjoy it, but this is definitely not for everyone. —Eric Skelton
It’s structured around a series of Bible verses
There is no plot or traditional story structure to distinguish between acts, so the film is broken up by Bible verses that are displayed on stark blue title cards. While some of the passages appear to spread messages of love (“The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all,” Phillippians 4:23), some of the selections are more persuasive. The first Bible verse that’s displayed, Mark 1:15 (which Kanye has said is his favorite), states, “And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent and believe the gospel.” Later, Kanye selected John 8:12, which says, “He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” These verses align with the some of the lyrical content that has been previewed on the album, which seems to have a goal of converting people to Christianity. One of the songs played at the New York listening session in September included the lyrics, “Follow Jesus, listen and obey.” —Jessica McKinney
Not everyone is convinced by Kanye’s new journey
Not everyone on Thursday night was convinced that Kanye’s new religious journey is genuine. Before the film started rolling, some attendees even laughed and poked fun at the overtly religious themes they knew they were about to see. “Let us pray,” someone joked as the lights dimmed for the movie to start. After it started, one fan attempted to Milly Rock during the choir’s hymn, in which they repetitively sang about being “blessed.” Another person audibly laughed as the peephole lens closed in on one of the singers.
“I honestly don’t even know what that was,” one person said as the end credits rolled. Another attendee added, “I feel like I got brainwashed in there.”
Earlier this month, a clip from Keeping Up With the Kardashians went viral. In the video, Kim scolds Kanye for his criticism of her “sexy” Met Gala ensemble. “Just because you’re on a journey and transformation doesn’t mean I’m in the same spot with you,” she says. In many ways, Kim’s words echo the feelings of those in attendance Thursday night: They’re fans of Kanye’s music, but they aren’t happily following where this new chapter of ’Ye is heading.
There were some loyal followers in attendance, though. One man in his mid-twenties enthusiastically bobbed to the music in his seat and attempted to sing along. As everyone was leaving the theater, another young fan told his friend, “I can’t wait to hear this album tonight. With my bible, too. That shit’s going to hit so hard.” —Jessica McKinney
There are some redeeming visual and musical moments
The religious themes may have not resonated with everyone in the theater, but the film is visually stimulating. Although some moments feel like the lead-up to a Jordan Peele thriller, there are redeeming moments. The film’s director, Nick Knight, does a nice job of capturing the grandeur of James Turrell’s Roden Crater, while pairing it with unique shots of the choir and artistic nature scenes from the surrounding. The color palette is fairly neutral, with accents of the “Jesus Is King” blue and gold. At times, it feels like the work you’d see in a museum installation. —Jessica McKinney
The film is also highlighted by a couple worthwhile musical moments. Near the end of the film, Kanye sings an emotional, stripped-down version of “Street Lights,” with the accompaniment of a piano and organ. It’s a nice moment for fans of Kanye’s music, although it does leave you with the impression that the film would be a lot more enjoyable if had taken the form of a more traditional concert film featuring gospel renditions of songs from Kanye’s catalog. —Eric Skelton
It won’t be a box office smash
The two opening showings that Complex attended in New York City were each nearly sold out, but following screenings might not be quite as full. Less than ten minutes before the next showing at AMC Lincoln Square 13 began, only 40 of 480 tickets had been sold, according to the theater’s website. —Eric Skelton