No wonder the staff at Regal Cinema & IMAX did not know what they were showing. On Monday evening, I ventured to the movie theater in Dickson City to watch “Jesus Is King.” After I waited in line at the box office to buy a ticket, a staffer had to ask a manager if the multiplex was even showing it. He returned to say that there was no film playing there.
Dejected and confused, I walked away but not without looking at the Fandango and Regal websites to see if this was true. It wasn’t, and I returned back in line, which by that time had swelled significantly. About a dozen of moviegoers were on their way to see the docudrama “Faustina: Love and Mercy,” a one-night Fathom Event on the life of Faustina Kowalska, the Polish Catholic nun who had seen and talked to Jesus and was later canonized. Her namesake church is in my Nanticoke neighborhood, so I knew that this screening would be heavily attended. In fact, the screening was sold out.
Faith-based films are popular in these parts, but an IMAX film called “Jesus Is King” just didn’t gain any traction here. Maybe it’s because the film’s full name is “IMAX Kanye West: Jesus Is King.” The staffer realized his mistake and sold me a ticket. Advertising, movie listings and even Internet Movie Database let that title slide.
The large auditorium with an oversized screen was the opposite of what was inside the “Faustina” screening — there was great emptiness in the land of stadium seating. I was in the center row’s center seat, wondering why such a “big” film and theater made me feel so small. “Jesus Is King” started without the usual previews or commercials. It immediately dived in and out of the Roden Crater, an art experience designed by James Turrell that is inside a volcanic cinder cone in Arizona’s Painted Desert. The feeling was surreal, with the installation provoking plays on light, space and shadows and taking the viewer on a journey. For something that is billed as a concert film and documentary, it felt more like a walk through someone’s mind.
But viewers were promised new music and insight into West’s transformation from an egocentric entertainer to a saved musician. Instead, “Jesus Is King” tiptoed around this territory. The movie does not use common Christian symbols like the crucifix, the cross or even a depiction of Jesus, but Jesus’ presence was known through a circular skyline that illuminates a tight space. A chorus in dark brown garments, complementing the melanin that glowed in their skin. West doesn’t take center stage, at first. Instead, his choir, as seen during his Sunday Service concerts he has held throughout the year, is the focus through most of the 32-minute film.
The song selection is shallow on capturing the Holy Spirit one would suspect to feel when they’re in the pews of an African-American church. The selection treads on familiar staples like “How Excellent” and “Jesus Is King.” Their voices are powerful and no one stands out as a soloist. Director Nick Knight’s camerawork and framing, however, make the case for a new view of Christian art. The frame changes shape throughout the half-hour, employing circles and ovals while inviting viewers inside the church. The projection becomes smaller at times to much larger, as if it’s amplifying the message. Title cards featuring well-known New Testament verses break up the songs.
The sound editing bounces the voices throughout the auditorium. While I was the only one in the theater, I could feel and hear what the sound was creating — something like how a megachurch member connects to a message in a gigantic setting. At some point, I was clapping along to one of the songs.
Just as that feeling settled in, it was taken away. It was replaced with suspicion as the choir died down and began to show their praise, breaking down on the crow. Was it all an act? After all, “Jesus Is King” is a promotional companion piece to his first gospel rap album. Was this all a publicity stunt? Coverage of his Sunday Service concerts were heavy on what celebrities showed up, the size of the crowd and the choir and what outfits the Kardashian clan wore.
When West finally showed up near the last third of the movie, he was singing “Street Lights” from his 2008 album “808s & Heartbreak.” While it’s not a Christian song, West employed the same musicians from his choir to give it a gospel feel. But Jesus was missing from this segment, despite West masking his ego under a coverage of dark blue lighting. I could only see his profile, but it was easy to tell it was him. But “Street Lights” felt like the right selection for this piece, as “808s & Heartbreak” as a whole was a marriage of hip hop and high art. And through “Jesus Is King,” West showed how he wanted to merge his new-found faith with his love for modernism.
But faith felt like a thin layer in this film, which didn’t have many songs from the new album. West went from the long-form videos he made with Spike Jonze for “We Were Once a Fairytale” and his own “Runaway” and “Cruel Summer” to a larger-than-life IMAX affair. A pumped-up show of faith is not even to prove a transformation, but “Jesus Is King” adds to a different interpretation of Christian imagery.
Tamara Dunn is the night news editor at the Times Leader. She is also a film lover who counts “Rear Window” and “Black Panther” as her favorites.