In her introduction to Listening to Kenny G, the latest in Bill Simmons’ Music Box documentary series for HBO, director Penny Lane sets out her thesis statement thusly: “Kenny G is the best-selling instrumentalist of all time. He is probably the most famous living jazz musician. And I made this film to find out why that makes certain people really angry.”
What follows is a fascinating (though decidedly Kenny-sympathetic) portrayal of the legendary saxophonist, who’s long held the title of the highest-selling instrumentalist in the world. But while he’s been a pop culture icon for decades, he’s also been a punchline, with his frizzy hair and his popularizing of “smooth jazz” into the pop-culture consciousness. To resist Kenny is to resist muzak in elevators, or the riff from “Going Home” that now serves as the unofficial closing-time anthem in all of China.
So, by combining the voices of both Kenny — who sits down for lengthy interviews about his life as a jazz musician, his meticulous process, and his branched-out interests from flying to investments — and his critics, Lane crafts a cheeky portrait of the man as an inescapable phenomenon. What is it about Kenny G’s generally amiable, deliberately anodyne music career that rubs some people the wrong way? And how does Kenny feel about it?
Around the film’s premiere at TIFF, Consequence sat down for a Zoom meeting with both Lane and Kenny to talk about all of these things and more, as well as where Listening to Kenny G fits into the idiosyncratic filmmaker’s own repertoire.
Penny, you’re not usually one to do music docs. What was it about Kenny or the project itself that led to you taking this on?
Penny Lane: Bill Simmons, who is amazing, asked if I would pitch him ideas for [the Music Box series]. At first, I was pretty dubious; I don’t love music documentaries, because usually, they’re a pretty tough form. Often, you’re just doing a Wikipedia page: here’s all the info, in chronological order. It’s just not a very interesting cinematic form to me. There’s no conflict.
So I thought, maybe I can think of a subject that has some conflict in it. And when it comes to music, something that’s always interested me is how intensely we feel our opinions. It’s true with film too, but even more so with music, because something about the music you love as a teenager just somehow crystallizes and forms a central part of your identity.
A friend of mine once said that the music you listen to plus or minus two years from when you lost your virginity is the most important music in your life. And I think there’s something to that.
I tried to think of an artist who has a huge number of fans and was very successful and beloved, but who also inspires that kind of anger or even contempt in a certain population. And I thought it’d be fun to explore that, and Kenny G seemed like a good vessel for that.