Last night, on a beach on the easternmost edge of Cannes (the equivalent for festivalgoers of the edge of the world), a select crowd of rappers and Middle Eastern aristocracy arrived to find a giant white cloth pyramid set up in a parking lot. Within it, an arena had been installed, complete with seven movie screens — three opposite the bleachers, two on either side, one on the ceiling, and one on the floor. See, Kanye West had made a movie, and when Kanye does a movie — even if it's only 26 minutes long — you'd best believe he goes big.
The man of the hour arrived so un-rapper-ish-ly early — and in a boring car instead of on a yacht or something — that the red carpet hadn’t even been set up yet. (He was sweetly proud and nervous about the premiere and wanted to be on site in case anything went wrong.) A publicist scrambled to shuffle photographers into place as 'Ye began a romantic walk along the edge of the Le Palm Beach Cannes nightclub parking lot with his main squeeze, Kim Kardashian, who looked stunning in a low-cut, mirrored minidress. At one point, Kanye stopped to tuck a stray hair behind Kim's ear, maintaining eye contact as she smiled back. The moment was well-documented. Folks, they're really in love! Check out the photos.
Soon, the film's stars, Kid Cudi and Pusha-T, had arrived, along with many a gorgeous, tall Qatari woman, almost all of them in skin-tight, white Hervé Léger numbers. See, Kanye's film, more an art installation than a traditional narrative drama, had been funded by the Doha Film Institute, where its beautiful, Kardashian look-alike star, Sarah A. (she can't use her real name because it is frowned upon in Qatar for women to act) was an intern before 'Ye swept her up in this. Somehow, I lucked into sitting right in front of Cudi, Kanye, and Kim, and could bear witness to their nervous patter as they waited for the lights to go down. Kim to Kid Cudi: "That's how I am when I act, and you're insecure because you're out of your element, but every time you do it, you improve. You gotta do what scares you."
The screening began with the briefest of Kanye speeches:
"So I'd like to thank everybody for coming out tonight. Thank you for all the support, all the cash, for being a part of making this dream come true, this idea ... and I've made notoriously, very long speeches in the past, so I'm going to keep it very short. But this has been a very crazy last three months to say the least, and it's just surreal to see it all come into fruition like this and for us to actually be doing this, so thank you, and this is Cruel Summer right here."
Then came the ominous hum of violins. On the screen above us, two black-clad thieves (Cudi and Pusha-T) began climbing down an air shaft ladder into a parking garage. As they continued down the ladder, the image switched to the screen right in front of us, then expanded to all three front screens as they bantered about Prince versus Michael Jackson while casing out the garage. Suddenly, they were in Lamborghinis and screaming down the streets of Qatar with cops in hot pursuit as the music swelled. The seat-rattling bass thumps were more powerful than anything Michael Bay could have produced. Kim and Kanye held hands. He danced furiously in his seat; she sat still and attentive. The music, I'm told, is all new and will be the foundation for an album called Cruel Summer that Kanye will drop later this year, featuring his boys like Big Sean, Pusha, and Cudi.
No budget information was available, but if there's any doubt about how much dough went into this, think about what it would take to shut down the streets of Qatar to shoot twenty or so speeding Lamborghinis for a one-minute sequence. Then multiply that by 26.
But if people want to give Kanye money to do something like this, let them. He's got a great visual sense. Particular highlights were the gorgeous close-ups of a bird of prey, stretching over two screens as it took off, and one of horses' feet galloping along the sand, played on all five eye-level screens at once. The movie is all Kanye's vision: his images, his music, and costumes he designed, mixed with pieces by local Arabian designers. And he put it together in two and a half months, with only four days of actual shooting (which included wrangling twenty camels and 100 extras in addition to those Lambos). The camera rig they used was invented for this shoot and made up of multiple cameras, so each screen could bear a different image. Why? Because why show a movie on one screen if you could show it on seven?
The plot, such as it is, follows a car thief (Cudi) who crashes into a dune and winds up in a palace in a parallel universe where he falls in love with a blind Arabian princess. Her father says he can marry her if he can make her see. What else?
• Cudi's gang of car thieves is called the Lamborghini Dons (not mentioned in the movie, but Cudi told me this later). He formed it to honor his father, who was a car thief, too.
• She lives in a palace filled with taut golden strings. Her mother set them up so she could run and play while holding onto them, even though she's blind.
• Those strings all lead to a single Game of Thrones–like throne, where she sits, surrounded by barriers as if in a prison.
• Cudi finds her there but is immediately tackled by guards and winds up in a prison with ... Aziz Ansari.
• Somehow Cudi winds up in the desert, beaten and abandoned by guards.
• He wraps himself in a magic scarf and becomes a cocoonlike statue standing against the sandstorms for a good third of the movie. "It kind of mummified me," Cudi told us of the scarf.
• To make the princess "see," Cudi plucks the strings to make music. Each note brings up a bright light, kind of like the end sequence in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
After the screening, Kanye gave one of his infamously long speeches, explaining that there had been a problem with the sound on a voice-over and talking about his vision:
"The [seven screens idea] is related to a post–Steve Jobs, post-Windows era of where we're always on a BlackBerry or a phone at a ballgame, at the movies, and you're looking at seven windows when you're online. And I've found myself even falling asleep at the theater unless I'm talking to somebody or I'm on the phone, and it's because of the amount of information that we have at once. ... I was very particular about having the screens be separate and having it where your mind puts the screens back together the way you can put memories together, the way that happens throughout the day and it all links back up.
When I was in grammar school, I had a couple of drawings of my take on synesthesia. I didn't know that definition, but I knew that I could see sound. I like to see shapes in sound, and there's different types of synesthesia where people relate letters and shapes and smells in different ways. But my way is that I can see sound in front of me. So that drawing that I was doing when I was 17 years old, this is that same exact drawing at age 34, post-working on the Throne tour, and working on music and having a record label with all these awesome artists. [Editor's note: His voice actually got high, excited, and a little choked up at this point.] So basically, it's all like a painting.
I'm not the best director in the world or anything like that, but I had an idea. I could dream of one day this being the way that people watch movies, in this form where it surrounds you and people want to go back and see it more and more because they missed something else to the left and missed something else to the right, and it felt more like the experience of life. Like, the first time you come to Cannes, you look at this way and you look that way and you look up."
This was a rough cut, he explained, and he promised to bring the installation to Qatar and New York, reediting and improving it along the way. He equated the leap between making this movie and his first, Runaway, in 2010, to doing his first fashion show:
"Where we completely got mutilated [by the critics] and then coming back with the next collection and getting decent reviews. … The reason why I went so hard at this is that I want to work on cities. I want to work on amusement parks and I want to change what entertainment experiences are like and [make movies] that have the same entertainment value of a Cirque du Soleil or Walt Disney or something like that. That's my goal."
As I exited the arena to an outdoor party with Champagne and sushi that then led to an after-party in a crazy French nightclub where Cudi, Big Sean, and Pusha T performed, I unexpectedly found myself standing next to Jay-Z. What was his review? "Amazing!" Had he ever seen a movie like this before? "Have you?" he asked me back, and laughed and laughed while rubbing my back. (My review of that: amazing!) Had Kanye talked to him about this? "Yeah, about the idea, but to see it come to fruition is great, because the execution of idea is everything." So what did he think the film meant? He got deep: "It's about the things that separate us — race and class in society and things like that. But the only thing that really binds us is true love." He continued to rub my back. I got nervous. I tried to ask another question. "No, no, hold onto that," said Jay-Z. "That's what I'm going to leave you on." He laughed some more and walked away, and as he did, I think I finally got what he meant about true love.
(The exhibit is open for the next two days. Anyone lucky enough to be in Cannes can grab free tickets here. Or check back to see when it's playing elsewhere.)