DOC NYC 2021: ‘Listening to Kenny G’ Is the Delightful Tale of a Hated Artist

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Listening to Kenny G

Whether you know it or not, you’ve heard Kenny G before. Maybe it was on TV, radio, or Spotify, or perhaps it was while waiting for your dentist appointment or while walking through a shopping mall. Or maybe you know the name because of the utter disdain it produces in jazz purists or through the plentiful jokes and parodies poking fun at his music that have appeared in South Park, Family Guy, Wayne’s World 2, among other shows and films. Penny Lane’s new documentary Listening to Kenny G explores this fascinating rift between talent, hate, and stardom.

“This is not sax, this is masturbation,” points out jazz critic Will Layman when explaining how Kenny G’s play-with-your-heart music approach is a departure from jazz’s historical continuity and complexity. This is one of the many reasons people hate Kenny G, but what Penny Lane (Hail Satan?) does so wonderfully with this film is exploring how this unique artist can connect with people while being almost undefinable. Is his music pop, jazz, or R&B? How did Bill Clinton’s favorite musician end up as the poster artist for generic elevator music? And why does his music model enrage so many artists and critics? 

Lane intertwines highly insightful and often witty interviews of critics, professors, composers, and Kenny G himself, with footage of old TV shows, music videos, and concert performances. The film takes us through Kenny G’s high school years, where he learned from mentor James Gardiner, his recruitment by legendary producer Clive Davis,  his big break in The Johnny Carson show, his amusing popularity in China, and his transition into meme king in modern times. This approach only falters when discussing the racial implications of Kenny’s success—we learn about the label’s attempts at hiding him being white to appeal to Black audiences. Later on, the film touches on how white artists appropriate and stylize the art that Black artists first innovated. This is addressed directly by Kenny, but only on a surface level. 

Listening to Kenny G easily breaks out from the standard documentary mold thanks to smart directing decisions and the personality of its subject. Lane delves into Kenny G’s career in a playful manner, smoothly transitioning between stages of his life, tackling different themes, and creating some very interesting food for thought while doing so. The editing, presentation, and visual aspect are excellent. Small touches, like the use of lower thirds that look like charts for the interviews, and Windows 95 graphics (with solitaire in the background!) during the explanation of a ’90s viral moment, give the film an extra touch of welcoming detail. 

Kenny G is a compelling interviewee. He’s self-deprecating and a bit smug, but he’s quite likable too. His passionate answers and personality construct the portrait of a dedicated guy with a tremendous work ethic whose “practice, practice, practice” motto and dedication to the things he enjoys has made him not only a successful artist but an investor, golfer, and pilot too. And, most importantly, he’s clearly a guy who creates music with his heart. He says so himself at the start of the film and then demonstrates it through his actions and answers organically. This works as an explanation of who Kenny G is, as well as the reason why so many people love his music.

Among the themes Listening to Kenny G explores, there’s one that shines through and elevates the whole film. When talking about how legendary jazz musician Pat Metheny heavily criticized him and called him a disgrace to modern culture, Lane strongly reflects how the musical experience is different for everyone. Kenny G clearly doesn’t care about the hate he receives, but what about the fans who used his music for their marriage ceremony? How can a fan be mocked or loathed for their musical tastes by someone who has a whole different personal history? The talk about hate is juxtaposed by footage of Kenny signing autographs, giving away tickets to a young fan, and being told by an excited woman how she used his music in her wedding. Whether it’s music, film, a painting, or whatever comes to mind, art speaks to us all in different ways; it evokes distinct feelings and emotions depending on our personalities and tastes.  

Listening to Kenny G is a delightful documentary that analyzes the hate surrounding its subject and highlights how that hate is rendered useless by the power of his art. Although it doesn’t tell you whether you should like or dislike his music, it explains both sides of the equation while making sure to forge the portrait of a unique artist in full control of his skills.

Listening to Kenny G is screening as part of the Special Events program at DOC NYC 2021. It will debut on HBO on December 2 and stream on HBO Max as part of the MUSIC BOX series.


Listening to Kenny G
  • 9/10
    Rating - 9/10
9/10

TL;DR

Listening to Kenny G is a delightful documentary that analyzes the hate surrounding its subject and highlights how that hate is rendered useless by the power of his art. Although it doesn’t tell you whether you should like or dislike his music, it explains both sides of the equation while making sure to forge the portrait of a unique artist in full control of his skills.