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Listening to Kenny G 2021 Movie Review Poster Trailer Online
The answer, it turns out, will either surprise you or seem oddly predictable, which might concern Lane if her goal is to be an artistic contrarian and not just a cinematic troll. Her latest reclamation project is smooth-jazz legend Kenny G, who receives the director’s lightheartedly introspective treatment in HBO’s Listening to Kenny G.
Like Garret Price’s recent Woodstock 99: Peace, Love and Rage, Listening to Kenny G is part of Bill Simmons’ Music Box anthology series. Though entertaining and very occasionally revelatory, this new entry suggests that Simmons has forgotten one of the lessons from the early entries of his ESPN 30 for 30 franchise: Not every documentary has to be feature length. Listening to Kenny G is never really boring at 96 minutes, but there’s no point being made here that couldn’t have been made in an hour.
In the opening scene, Lane is heard asking the artist formerly known as Kenneth Gorelick, “How are you feeling?” With a smile he replies, “Underappreciated in general. But other than that, I’m fine.” Whether or not Lane’s intent is to be seen as a troll — in the internet parlance, not the under-the-bridge parlance — Kenny G is absolutely and completely a troll, which is probably the best thing I learned from Listening to Kenny G.
And how could he not be? If you spend your life collecting absurd amounts of money with one hand and dismissive and derisive commentary with the other, being a troll might be the only legitimate response. You could either internalize and self-flagellate every time somebody criticizes you for destroying popular music and for being a goofball with curly hair, or you could smile broadly yet sheepishly and, to transition to sports-taunting, point in the direction of the scoreboard. Kenny G, who doesn’t express an iota of malice at any point in the documentary, knows the exact sales of every one of his albums, and takes the healthier path.
You might think that the film’s validation of a maligned icon from the ’90s would make it a bit like the recent Netflix documentary on painter Bob Ross, but it’s actually more like recent depictions of Anthony Fauci, because if you come away learning much of anything about Kenny G, it’s that Kenny is a hard worker.
“I want to be the best interview you’ve ever had, and if that means sitting here for 12 hours and not eating or drinking, I’ll do it. That’s my problem,” he says. The secret of Kenny G’s success, if you’re not so cynical as to attribute it to a collective lack of musical taste around the world, is that he likes to work hard. He practices his sax for three hours a day, and he has dedicated comparable time to learning to fly airplanes and to golfing, baking, doing laundry, being a father. It’s here you might wonder why neither of Kenny G’s sons is in the documentary, why no mention is made of his marriage, etc. I guess that’s the result of the decision that only Kenny G himself is qualified to give commentary on Kenny G the man (as opposed to Kenny G the phenomenon).
Offering the counterpoint, the snarky suggestion that his success is, indeed, attributable to a collective lack of musical taste, are an assortment of scholars and commentators, including New York Times jazz and pop critic Ben Ratliff and professors from Columbia and Bard. It’s here that you really do get the sense that our commonly held disregard for Kenny G might not be wrong but is certainly overkill. Mocking Kenny G has become a three-decade game of one-upmanship. And who better than Penny Lane to serve as a sort of devil’s advocate, so to speak.
The experts are prone to overkill as much as perceptive observation, and depending on your perspective, either one of those things might undermine the other. They quibble not with his techniques, but with the over-glorification of his record-breaking holding of notes and his aggressive musical noodling. Points to jazz critic Will Layman for this observation: “What you hear in Kenny G’s music is no conversation at all. This is a solo project. This is not sex. This is masturbation.”
The interviewed experts also quibble with his lack of musical knowledge and, guess what, Kenny G is pretty comfortable admitting that he’s more interested in jazz from a technical perspective than a musical theory angle. If you wait long enough, they discuss — this one isn’t a quibble — the role of race and appropriation in his success, and, in maybe the documentary’s most revealing moment, Kenny G confesses this is something he has never considered. Even if you don’t believe that this is true, you believe that this is the perception he wants to put out into the world because his fans will believe it and it will make his detractors’ heads explode.
My favorite scenes in Listening to Kenny G feature the artist in his studio explaining the precision behind his slow and methodical recording process. Nobody will come away from the doc thinking he makes bad music because of a lack of effort. It’s here that Lane’s inability or lack of interest in finding actual well-known musicians to comment on his output is odd. The industry figures here include Clive Davis, and Kenny G’s former high school jazz instructor also weighs in, when what the documentary needs is five minutes of a gigging studio saxophone player from New Orleans breaking down Kenny G note by note, for better or worse.
Now I’ve gone from lamenting the film’s padding to asking for a longer documentary, because it’s one thing to argue convincingly that Kenny G isn’t the Antichrist, and it’s another to argue convincingly that he’s good.
From an objective perspective, it isn’t great that Lane allows hers subject to steer the discourse so thoroughly, even though that makes Listening to Kenny G a documentary fans can celebrate (in addition to providing the expected fodder for detractors). Either way, there’s amusing stuff here, and it’s likely to leave audiences wondering which vilified figure Penny Lane will embrace next.