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Keeping Up With Kanye West: Inside a Doc Trilogy Two Decades in the Making (Without Ye’s Final Cut)

In October 2019, Coodie, a former stand-up comedian-turned-music video and documentary director known only by one name, brought an overstuffed duffel bag to his big meeting with Time Studios in New York. Executives sitting in for his movie pitch — a look at the life and career of rapper Kanye West, complete with an intense archive of unseen footage spanning more than two decades — assumed he had come from the gym.

“I dumped the bag out right there on the table,” he says. “When they saw the pile of mini-DV tapes, they greenlit it.” To suggest that Coodie and his longtime creative partner and co-director Chike Ozah were finally getting their shot wouldn’t be quite accurate. Their ride-along on the personal history of one of the most celebrated rappers and polarizing celebrities of our time was always going to find its way to audiences (as this issue went to press, West was named the main suspect in a misdemeanor battery investigation launched by the LAPD). But, much like a long-delayed album or thrice-pushed stadium show from West (known more recently as Ye), timing is everything.

The footage has been edited into three feature-length documentaries, titled “Jeen-Yuhs.” Netflix acquired all three movies last fall, and attendees to the virtual Sundance Film Festival will get an early look at the saga before it hits the streaming service later this year. It’s hard to wrap one’s brain around the sheer volume of footage the men have of West, from his most intimate conversations with his late mother, Donda, to candid moments of his struggle to pivot from producing hit music to taking center stage. His run-ins with Taylor Swift, Donald Trump and even a few glimpses of Kim Kardashian and Beyoncé are included too.

Coodie first encountered West in their hometown of Chicago, where the director started out as a host for a music-centered cable access series called “Channel Zero.” Part of the show’s mission was unearthing the city’s vibrant hip-hop scene, which struggled to produce a commercial star before West and rapper Common.

“I kept hearing about Kanye and kept running into him, but I finally saw him perform and I was like, ‘This dude is a superstar!’” Coodie says. “Watching the movie ‘Hoop Dreams’ is really what gave me the idea for this film. I wanted to do a ‘Hoop Dreams’ on Kanye and see how far he’d go.”

Their chronicles of West would last a staggering 22 years, with one significant break — a stretch that began in 2007 after West’s mother died due to complications from liposuction surgery. They reconnected following West’s highly public breakdown (“or breakthrough, Kanye would call it,” says Coodie) during the 2016 global tour in support of the album “The Life of Pablo.”

Variety screened the first of the three docs, which begins around 2001 when West was producing hits such as Jay-Z’s “H to the Izzo.” A parade of rap legends including Mos Def, Talib Kweli and hitmaker Just Blaze are all seen in West’s orbit, though the film suggests that many in the industry were invested in keeping West locked in the studio making premium beats. His struggle for legitimacy as an artist seems almost bizarre to relive, given his incredible influence on multiple genres of music and the worlds of fashion and film. Even more bizarre, perhaps, is that West does not enjoy final cut. Some would consider that a triumph for the directors, since West is known to be meticulous about his image and incredibly controlling.

“I said, ‘Dude, you have to trust me.’ And he did, 100%,” Coodie says. “Mind you, when his team and the business-people have gotten involved, they’re of course going to have their say. But I needed to tell this story. It’s not about making Kanye likable or not. The footage doesn’t lie. What makes the film special is that it’s not something definitive; it’s his journey through my vision.”

Over the past two decades, there were several times when the directors felt the film could be cut and released, but West’s story kept evolving.

“I was always arguing with people that this dude is about to win Grammys,” Coodie says. “That was the main goal of the doc was to see if he achieved that. But we always say, you can’t let your imagination get in the way of God’s manifestation. I’ve seen the Grammys, but God had something way more in mind for Kanye — he had running for president in mind for Kanye.” And yes, the movie follows West on the 2020 campaign trail.

But back to Part 1 of “Jeen-Yuhs.” Much of the narrative drama centers on West being featured in an MTV News segment called “You Hear It First,” which was designed to break emerging artists (a quaint reminder of the power that MTV used to wield among teenagers who influenced the music industry). Coodie met Ozah through a mutual friend in those Times Square offices, where they bonded over a love of film. Sometime later, Coodie was in L.A. with West writing a treatment for his breakout single “Through the Wire,” which was performed through a caged jaw following a near-fatal car accident.

“I get a call, and he’s saying they had no money but this idea for a music video,” Ozah says. “I was familiar with Kanye on the producer tip, and I respected him. So Coodie and I did it, and have been business partners ever since.”

The pair have released several documentaries aside from the long-gestating Kanye project, including “A Kid From Coney Island,” about ex-NBA star Stephon Marbury, and “Gangster With a Heart of Gold,” about gang member-turned-politician Noonie G. Both Coodie and Ozah, however, recognize the gravity around “Jeen-Yuhs.”

“What I think resonates about Kanye, whether people have had the same amount of success or not, is maybe they got crippled by adversity,” Ozah says. “Kanye didn’t let that cripple him. He didn’t cower to it — he met it head on. He leveraged every loss to light his fire. That’s the mindset when you’re operating in your gift — you have to believe the doors will open for you and continue to put in the work. Kanye never stopped, and neither did we.”

The directors say they weren’t precious about the more incendiary parts of West’s history. “I saw a lot of that stuff just as the rest of the world did, like the Taylor Swift situation and then, man, the Trump stuff,” Coodie recalls of infamous West moments like interrupting Swift’s VMA acceptance speech in 2009 to decry her win over Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” and his donning of a MAGA hat and meetings with Trump in the early days of his presidency.

But alas, the cameras didn’t follow West everywhere. Reality TV fans should also not expect much Kardashian content. “When he got married, I wasn’t invited to the wedding,” Coodie says. “This film is truly from my perspective, and the camera wasn’t filming Kim. I’ve always said, if anyone wants to know anything about that part of Kanye’s life, watch ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians.’”