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.