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.
So Kenny, when you heard that Penny was going to make a documentary about you with this framework, how did you respond to that initial pitch?
Kenny G: Well, we had lunch just to meet each other and talk about the idea. And [Lane] never told me about the part where she was going to get so many critics to talk about my music in that way. She didn’t tell me about that part! I only found about that last week.
Lane: That’s an exaggeration! [Laughs]
Kenny G: But she said the same thing to me, that some people love music and some people hate it. There are critics that say nice things and critics that say bad things. And she wanted to find out how somebody like me, who’s sold so many records and been so successful, can have so many different viewpoints around them and explore that. I thought that was great. You know, I’ve heard it all before, all the critics. So I wasn’t afraid of what I would see.
Being the avid student that you are (as seen in the documentary), did you look up stuff that Penny had done before to get an understanding of her as an artist before meeting her?
Kenny G: I saw the Satan movie [Hail Satan?] and thought, “What? What does this have to do with me?” But I like the human element — there was humor in it. I liked that she’s taking the subject matter and poking fun at how people think of stereotypes. I thought that was clever, and that obviously she’s a smart person and very insightful. It didn’t scare me away, let’s put it that way.
Right, because Penny, in my understanding of your works, you have this incredible empathy for your subjects. You have a deep interest in these misunderstood, sometimes notorious figures (even in their popularity), whether it’s John Romulus Brinkley in Nuts! or folks who believe they suffer from Morgellons in The Pain of Others. What is it about these kinds of people that draws you to them?
Lane: I’m glad you think I’m empathetic because I hope I am. And I hope that’s how people feel when they watch my films, because [my subjects] are not just vessels for ideas. They are people, first and foremost.
But I think that I’m interested in problematic people, and I don’t even mean that as a negative; I mean people that inspire a lot of conflicting points of view. Maybe that has to do with my own personality and what I find interesting, but when people bring me projects about people that everyone likes, I don’t really know what you do with that.
It’s really just masturbation at that point.
Lane: Yeah, I want conflict, I want to be challenged. I was so challenged by making this film. It really helped me to think about how we form our ideas about what is good and bad in art, and how, when you really drill down, it doesn’t matter what someone’s credentials are. It’s just opinion.
I think it’s really important to remember that, because when we really get worked up and say, “How dare you say that’s a bad movie!” you’ve got to take a step back. Because art is important, and it all matters.
At the end of the day, these judgments are just judgments. There are no objective criteria by which you can judge art. I taught art for 12-13 years, and I would constantly have to explain to my students that, while there were no objective criteria by which to judge art, I was going to be grading them. That was an ongoing crisis.