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.
So when it came time to do the interviews between the two of you, what was the process like? How much time did you spend together and what did you do to prepare?
Lane: We spent about ten days together.
Kenny G: She came over to my house, and we set up, and just talked for hours and hours and hours and hours.
Lane: It was getting to the point where I was very exhausted.
Kenny G: I kept asking, “Okay, are my answers too long?” I just keep getting into the details of everything.
Lane: But that’s what you want! In terms of process, that was basically it; we filmed together and there was a pause because of COVID. And then we got back into it.
Kenny G: I even got her to get in the airplane with the crew, trusting me to fly that plane. I thought that was pretty cool.
What was that like, Penny, being in Kenny G’s plane?
Lane: I thought I might be nervous, but I wasn’t because Kenny’s so calm and confident. You couldn’t have a better pilot, you know? I’d be nervous, but he looks fine; we’ll probably be fine.
Kenny G: It’s like, I’ve done it for 13 years, it’s a seaplane, we’re flying over Puget Sound, we’re gonna be fine.
As you said, Kenny, there’s a moment in the documentary where you’re checking in with Penny and making sure you’re doing a good job; you want to be the best interviewee. That does feel central to your personality, whether it’s flying or jazz or anything else. When you take on a task you really try to excel at it.
Kenny G: Unfortunately, for me, when I give my very, very best, I always think I can do even better. That’s the problem: If you do your very best, how can you do better?
Does that happen? When you think about being the best-selling instrumentalist of all time? “Ooh, let’s try to top that.”
Kenny G: Yes! Well, no, I don’t think of it like that, in terms of record sales. But it’s more like, on January 1st, 2021, boom, you release a record, and you’ve said, these are the perfect notes. And then a month later, you notice an off note and want to fix it.
That’s what drives me crazy, working on a project and trying to trust that my best is good enough. And literally, you can’t do better than your best, but you think you can somehow.
Well, I think that kind of grace comes with the embrace of your critical reception, as well, that understanding that you’re doing the art you want to be doing.
Lane: And not everyone’s going to like it, and that’s okay! That was something I related with him on. We’re both artists, we’re both trying to have careers. Some of that means you have to play ball in certain ways, and understand that not everyone’s going to like what you like. You don’t want everyone to like what you do, because —
Kenny G: You don’t?
Kenny G: Oh, we disagree again! [Laughs]
Lane: Well, there’s no real way to do it, so it wouldn’t be a good goal. You can’t achieve it. So I think accepting that is hard, and I feel like I learned a lot from Kenny, who’s much further along in his career and a lot more successful than me.
I hope to have this kind of grace moving forward because if I’m as successful as I want to be, there’s only going to be more bad reviews. People that hate my guts and wish I’d stopped making films.
Kenny G: Yeah, when she makes Tropic Thunder 10, they’ll say “Oh, she’s gone commercial.”
Penny, you also talked to a bunch of critics and scholars to get the other side of his critical reception. How did you pick who to talk to, and what was their understanding of the project?
Lane: It was interesting because it was not obvious who I should talk to. I knew I wanted to represent a critical point of view, but I didn’t want it to be all like Pat Metheny. I didn’t think there was a lot of value in getting someone to come in and be rage-ful or something.
I wanted to talk to people I knew would have nuance, and would have a sense of humor, and didn’t take themselves too seriously. I can’t tell you how many jazz critics I was reading.
Kenny G: Yeah, I never thought to ask you about how you reached those people! Because I know Pat Prescott, who was the DJ at 94.7 The Wave in LA. I know her really well. And the smooth jazz people [you talked to], I knew.
Lane: Right, they knew something about you. So I wanted to have a mix, right? Because many of the critics didn’t actually know anything about Kenny. At the beginning, they’re like, “What even is there to say?” I try to show them going on a journey as well. The critics have their own revelations about Kenny and the perspectives [on his music] they never even considered.
I’ve never done a film where the vast majority of the people I interview aren’t people that I enjoy talking to. That’s a thing you can do as a filmmaker, but I haven’t gotten there yet. I just feel like it’s really hard to make films and I would like to enjoy as much of it as possible.
I like knowing that I would enjoy talking to Ben Ratliff; that’s why I picked him. Jason King was super-smart and thoughtful and knew so much. He studied under Clive Davis and knew a lot about music production. It wasn’t just another academic parroting the same point of view everyone else already have.
Kenny, you’ve been around for decades, and have this deep understanding of both your music and the criticism you’ve had over the years. Did going through the process of this documentary give you a different or better or clearer understanding of where you fall in the pop-culture milieu?
Kenny G: You know, not at all. Because I don’t really think that even the experts she got, they don’t count. They can say I’m this or I’m that, but it doesn’t really make any difference. I’m gonna do what I’m going to do.
I like the film because it shows that there is truth to the criticism; it’s genuine for them. And they really feel what they’re saying. But I’m also saying that’s fine, and I can understand you can think that. But here’s what I’m really doing, and I feel great about it, and I’m going to keep doing it.
Even now, it doesn’t affect how I think about where I fit in. Because I’m still that lucky guy that the big pop radio stations of the world just opened up to in 1986. They say there’s always one instrumental that becomes a huge hit: Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good,” Grover Washington Jr.
“Songbird” became that song. But then after I got that one hit, and it’s like, “What are you going to do for the rest of your career? It’s over now.” But I thought, why does it have to be just one? I started making my music and the radio kept playing them.
Lane: There’s nothing in the film that Kenny doesn’t know. It’s interesting for my audience to learn about how he became who he is, but he knows that. It had never occurred to me to ask where Kenny G came from because he had always existed my whole life.
Listening to Kenny G premieres December 2nd on HBO.