Cameras are not neutral — they change their subject. But while everyone lies for the camera, some people live in the camera. Throughout the film, West often appears most mindful of how history might regard him, driven by a sense that in a room full of people, the most important connection he could make was with Simmons’s lens. (See the scene in which he and Mos Def rap “Two Words,” and West appears to be staring through the camera’s aperture somewhere into the future.)
Simmons offers largely space-filling voice-over throughout the film, not an unreliable narrator so much as an uncertain one. There is either far too much or not nearly enough of him, more likely the former: The segments where he links West’s story to his own feel particularly ill-placed, a distraction that doesn’t offer context on the main subject. And some narrative choices are contrived: Too much time is given over to West’s desire to be featured in an MTV News segment spotlighting new artists. (It so happens that MTV was where Simmons and Ozah met.)
The success that Simmons had hoped to capture ended up being his termination notice — once West’s career was finally operating under its own steam, he left Simmons (and his footage) behind. That alone would have made for a compelling film. But the third segment, which is far more scattershot, consists largely of scraps that Simmons accrues over the next couple of decades, an era in which West becomes something unfamiliar to him: a world-building superstar.
This episode is less narratively satisfying and coherent than the first two, but Simmons’s indiscriminate eye and his pre-existing comfort with West end up as assets. Where in the early 2000s, Simmons had an aspirant as his subject, now he has someone who exists between superhero and autocrat, a figure who isn’t performing simply for one camera but for a world of cameras and observers.
There is a grim scene in which West is speaking with potential real estate partners, a gaggle of older white men, and tells them, “I took bipolar medication last night to have a normal conversation and turn alien to English.” He likens his treatment by the public to being drawn and quartered.
Simmons lingers for a while — this is who his subject has become, and it is as important to see as any of the clips from when he was simply an up-and-comer. But real as it is, this isn’t the West that Simmons knows, or can stomach. There’s something itchy in the camerawork, and eventually Simmons does something that doesn’t seem to come naturally: He turns the camera off.