Kamasi Washington is currently one of the most prolific artists around, bringing intricate and technically astounding jazz work to the mainstream. In the last five years, Washington has released 2015’s The Epic, 2018’s Heaven and Earth, two EPs and has had collaborations with artists including Kendrick Lamar (on both To Pimp a Butterfly and Damn), Thundercat and Run The Jewels. Washington’s music is both imbued with intense gravitas and immense creativity, exhibited impressively in his latest work, the short film “As Told to G/D Thyself.”
The work of a five-part directing team composed of Washington, Terence Nance, Jenn Nkiru, Marc Thomas and Bradford Young and collectively called Ummah Chroma, the film premiered last January at the Sundance Film Festival, and has since been released for viewing on Apple Music. In an interview with Zane Lowe, Washington described the short film as the fourth part of his latest album, rounding out Heaven and Earth (a two-side album) and 2018’s EP The Choice in a quadripartite package. The film was made as a sort of back-and-forth between visual and music, with both mediums influencing each other as the album was produced and the film concept developed.
This give and take between soundtrack and film is evident throughout, as the changing tracks mirror the vignette-style structure of the short film. Though there is no central narrative in this work, it is united by a series of characters, images and motifs, much like the music serving as its guiding force.
Young’s cinematography — known for his work on films including “Pariah,” “A Most Violent Year” and his Academy-Award nominated work on “Arrival” — utilizes a variety of framing techniques for the vignettes, creating a collage of styles and artful shots packed into the film’s brief but impactful 22 minutes.
The film begins in a lush soundscape of piano and strings, cosmic in scope and paired with a fantastical opening scene. A lone figure floats adrift in space, clinging to lines of electricity as a chorus rises and a saxophone enters the soundscape. At this point, we are given the only direct line of narration in the film, with a subtitle that reads “Submit to a moment…” Here, the animated sequence breaks into reality or at least a version of it. The film in and of itself isn’t exactly surrealist, with most of it grounded in a familiar version of the world we know. Fantastical elements fractalize the reality presented, creating a balance between the real and the dream world.
In its Sundance program, “As Told to G/D Thyself” is described as a “cosmic journey of sacred youth, during which pain, pleasure, and sublimation are nonnegotiable,” and these themes are evident throughout the various sequences, which often capture young people navigating the world amid supernatural images. There’s also a definite throughline of spirituality in the work, with praying and priestlike figures (including appearances by Washington himself) dotting the world of the film.
The film also follows a subtly crafted pattern, with cyclical appearances of certain imagery or characters. The only narrative guidance comes from occasional title cards, appearing every so often to reorient the viewer from the intense visual stories playing out. This is the only general explanation of form given from within the film, however, which Washington has said serves more as pieces of a puzzle for viewers to imbue with their own meaning.
Following its circular narrative, the film closes on the animated world in which it began, its lone figure marching forward toward an uncertain landscape. A strong piano and bass follow him, ending on a high of choral voices ringing out the film. It’s an exalted end to the piece, matching image and sound in a deliberately ambiguous end.
“As Told to G/D Thyself” is a musical companion piece, but works as a film in its own right —
fundamentally connected to the music but also offering new ideas with its visual work. In full, it complements Washington’s compositions to a transcendent effect, and is a truly innovative addition to how music can be presented and interpreted.
Watch “As Told to G/D Thyself” on Apple Music.
Camryn Bell covers film and television. Contact her at [email protected].