Kenny G is often a punchline. But a new documentary is listening more closely.


Kenny G has conquered American popular music, like it or not.

Soprano saxophone melodist, born Kenneth Gorelick, rose to national fame in the 1980s with “smooth jazz” ballads like “Songbird” and “Silhouette”. He remains the best-selling instrumentalist of the modern era, adored by fans from his native Seattle to China, where his easy-to-listen track “Going Home” is ubiquitous.

But over a career spanning nearly 50 years, Kenny G has been consistently and vehemently lambasted by jazz purists and many professional critics. They deride his creative output as a tasteless and artistically bankrupt “safe sax” – jazz without authenticity and fearlessness.

Penny Lane, the incisive documentary maker behind “Hail Satan?” and “Our Nixon” explores this stark contrast in “Listening to Kenny G,” a feature film debuting Thursday on HBO as part of “Music Box,” a five-installment documentary series about key story chapters American musical.

“Listening to Kenny G” is a portrait of the saxophonist’s rise to the top of the Billboard charts and his relentless work ethic. Lane also delves into deeper themes. The film, with a light touch and a keen eye, investigates the sociology of artistic taste, the relationship between musicians and genres, the appropriation of black styles in commercial music and other gnarled ideas.

In a phone interview on Wednesday, Lane spoke about the film’s themes and his own relationship to Kenny G’s work. The conversation was edited slightly for length and clarity.

NBC News: I would describe “Listening to Kenny G” as a Trojan horse in the best sense of the word. You think you’re sitting on the conventional profile of a famous performer, but you also get this essay on taste, genre evolution, cultural appropriation. How well does the finished film represent your original vision and how much did it take shape as you made it?

Penny Lane: I would say these great philosophical ideas were all in my original pitch. But what I hadn’t planned was Kenny, the person. I had chosen Kenny G as some sort of screen that I wanted to project all of these ideas onto, but I hadn’t really thought about what his personality would be and how talking to him about making art would affect the film.

He’s so weird and awesome and charismatic and amazing on camera that the movie had to stretch out to make room for him. Oddly enough, the more traditional biographies of the film are what I really didn’t think about or plan on. [Laughs.] But you saw it. He is so interesting! You can’t have a character like that and then not explore the character.

The film spends a lot of time with Kenny G behind the scenes – in the house, inside the recording studio, behind the scenes at concert halls. He is very enthusiastic and at ease with himself. But he admits that critics of what he calls the “jazz police” have hovered over his career. How do you think he managed to maintain that optimistic attitude despite all the contempt of the critics?

I think professional critics are engaged in a game he isn’t playing. I think it literally doesn’t matter what he does, whether the critics like him or not.

There was probably a point earlier in his career when it could have hurt his feelings in a more obvious way. But I think Kenny is extremely logical and metric-oriented, so I think he would say, “Well, here’s all that proof I have that what I’m doing is great, like 75 million records sold, so much. albums, so many concert dates, all these people playing my music all over the world. Why would I focus on these, like, 10 cranky people? ”

I think that’s actually a very healthy thing psychologically. That’s what a cognitive behavioral therapist would tell you to do, right? “Let’s look at the evidence in its entirety. Why focus on this one thing? “

I think he was never interested in rave reviews. There are artists who really matter and others who don’t. It doesn’t really matter to him. In general, he is a very happy and confident person.

The documentary made me think of other arts – not just music, but film, television, and books – where we see a big gap between the establishment’s critical consensus and popular appetites. Where else do you see this dynamic unfolding in a way that you find interesting, perhaps even as a future documentary subject?

Penny Lane and Kenny G at the “Listening To Kenny G” premiere at Doc NYC in New York City on November 10.John Lamparski / Getty Images

I think it’s in all areas. I spent so much time thinking about it. This is certainly true in, say, the kitchen: the famous chef who can be very popular, but people who deeply love food think he is bad. I think it’s in all creative endeavors.

But what I saw was that there has been a massive shift in our culture, and I’m sure it’s kind of a pendulum that will keep swinging back and forth forever. We’re in a time where – there’s this thing on the Internet that says, “Let people enjoy things. “Did you see this?

Yes.

Yes! “Let people enjoy things” seems to be a rallying cry on Twitter when it comes to criticism. I think at this point people I know who are movie critics would be reluctant to post anything negative about a Marvel movie because what good is it? People are going to be so mad at you for daring to write quotes about something that people like.

The way critics of the 1990s spoke of Kenny – and it was really blunt – that’s just not what I see happening in broader cultural criticism today. He swung the other way. If you are a sophisticated person, you are supposed to love Marvel and Taylor Swift but also Bach. There is an omnivorous attitude now.

I think it can go too far, however. This is what I didn’t want to do with the film. I don’t want the takeout to be “Well, it’s all relative anyway, so maybe Kenny G is really as good as Beethoven.” It would just be an absurd take out, in my mind. There are still things to say, criticism is still valuable, and dealing with the formal properties of music – these things really matter.

Kenny G is so closely associated with the aesthetics and vibes of the 1980s. I think in particular of the incredible footage in the movie of those Reagan-era malls where his songs are played virtually non-stop. I know you were a kid in the 80s. In your mind, how does Kenny G embody that time in American life?

It’s a good question. I was so young that inevitably my ideas about what the ’80s were like were shaped in retrospect by historical narratives and even nostalgia to some extent.

I think what people say from the ’80s is that it was all the Reaganite’ sun in America ‘optimism,’ happy days are back ‘. You can hear that in his music, and I think you can hear the excesses of the decade as well.

I’m not going to ask you if making this movie made you feel like Kenny G’s music was “good” or “bad”, because that seems against the spirit of the documentary. But what I would like to know is if your personal relationship with his music has changed during the production.

Oh, that has changed so much. John Halle, one of the music critics featured in the film, says towards the end: “What music really is, at the end of the day, are the associations it conjures up for you, the feelings it creates. . It will always be related to your own memory – and so for me now when I hear a song like “Forever in Love”, I get pretty emotional.

It’s not because this music is made for me, because it isn’t, but because now I imagine all these beautiful happy couples walking down the aisle that I feel like I know because i have edited them in my movie and seen them so many times. [Laughs.]

I’ve also been to Kenny G shows, watched audiences, and seen people happy to have a date with their husbands. I can feel, secondhand, what this music means to them.