Penny Lane’s documentary takes a witty and provocative look at the easy-listening saxophonist’s story while asking: what makes music good or bad?
Listening to Kenny G
Is there any musician more polarizing than Kenny G? The curly-haired saxophone player spawned the category of smooth jazz with international hits such as “Songbird” and “Silhouette.” But he also came to symbolize the easy-listening music played in malls and elevators that detractors love to hate. Filmmaker Penny Lane takes a witty and provocative approach to telling Kenny G’s story while asking a bigger question: what makes music good or bad?
The film charts the rise of Kenny G to explore his boom and backlash. Born to a middle-class Jewish family in Seattle, he was expected to take over his father’s plumbing business. But he received musical encouragement from his high school band teacher, James Gardiner, got inspired by Grover Washington Jr., and launched his career with producer Clive Davis.
Lane interviews jazz critics, academics, and DJs for their takes on Kenny G. It’s “wallpaper music,” says one commentator. “I just want to believe that I’m better than that.” For some critics, Kenny G represents a means to discuss how Black musicians had their work appropriated by white performers. Lane contrasts the haters with Kenny G admirers who cherish his music as the soundtrack to their lives.
“I don’t think I’m a personality to people,” says Kenny G. “I think I’m a sound.” He’s well aware of the jokes at his expense, but he retains a naiveté that makes for a fascinating character study. This documentary isn’t only about Kenny G. It’s also about you as a listener.