Review by Sean Boelman
Penny Lane is known for making documentaries that toy with the audience’s expectations, so cinephiles were surprised to hear she would be making a film about record-breaking jazz artist Kenny G. However, Listening to Kenny G is no average music documentary, as Lane explores her subject with much more depth and complexity than anyone would ever expect.
The movie follows the meteoric rise of saxophonist Kenny G, who would become the most popular instrumentalist of all time. That said, this isn’t some puffy biography that talks about how he was able to make his records into such successes despite the odds. It’s the portrait of a man whose controversial approach to an already controversial art form caused him to become the recipient of both love and hatred.
Quite a few films have discussed the potential appropriation of art forms from other cultures by white artists, but few have been as overtly confrontational as this. Lane and her interviewees pull no punches, basically asking Kenny G to his own face whether what he is doing is ethical, taking a historically Black artform and morphing it into something very different. And perhaps more refreshing is that Lane refuses to offer an easy answer to the audience.
With a relatively short runtime, the movie will easily keep the viewer’s attention thanks to Lane’s kinetic direction and sense of humor. In the hands of another filmmaker, this could have been a paint-by-numbers recollection of Kenny G’s career, but the way in which it lets the audience laugh with Kenny G at his situation makes it a lot more entertaining to watch.
For a movie about a love-him-or-hate-him guy, this film sure makes it hard to dislike Kenny G. Part of the reason that this works so well is that Kenny G is such a humble guy (at least to the camera) that he doesn’t let the attacks get to him. The movie doesn’t rebut those who hate him, but the fact that he accepts these criticisms makes him feel even more likable.
That said, the film of course isn’t going to be for those who find Kenny G’s music to be obnoxious. Those who consider themselves fans, or at least casual appreciators, of his smooth sound will definitely be jamming out to this soundtrack of his greatest hits, but it certainly won’t win over any new converts.
And to keep the beat rolling, Lane uses a variety of storytelling techniques. There’s a bit of everything, from animation to talking heads to observational footage of Kenny G in his daily life. It may not be the most innovative in what it uses to tell the story, but how Lane utilizes these basic building blocks to create something that feels unique is impressive.
Listening to Kenny G may look like an average music documentary on its surface, but there is a lot more going on here than one would expect. The filmmaker doesn’t shy away from asking the hard questions, including some you might not have even thought about otherwise.
Listening to Kenny G is screening at the 2021 DOC NYC Festival, which runs November 10-28.