Of the many music documentaries that screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, many – in fact, most – spend a lot of time telling you how great their subjects are. And then there’s “Listening to Kenny G,” which spends a lot of time telling you how much smooth-jazz saxophonist Kenny G sucks.
Mind you, it’d be impossible to make a Kenny G doc without addressing the elephant in the room, which is that the former Kenneth Gorelick is to many, particularly in the jazz community, a living embodiment of everything that can be wrong with popular music. And director Penny Lane, whose previous work includes “Our Nixon” and “Hail Satan?” is smart enough to know she can’t avoid the topic of Kenny G’s extreme divisiveness and playful enough to make it the defining characteristic of her film.
So while we hear from Kenny’s old high-school music teacher, who was then and now a big fan, and from Clive Davis, who signed him to Arista Records, the interviews for “Listening to Kenny G” basically boil down to Mr. G himself vs. everybody else – “everybody else” being a panoply of jazz critics and scholars who are all-too-happy to detail why it’s right to hate his music.
He’s turned blandness into a calling card … he’s music to soothe you in the dentist’s office … the lack of true jazz-style interplay in his compositions means, in the words of one critic, “this is not sex, this is masturbation.”
And then Lane lets Kenny G make the case for himself, and he grins and shakes that mop of hair and says he doesn’t mind the criticism at all.
“I get the joke,” he says, and it seems that he doesn’t care because the jokes makes him more visible, more of a social-media presence, more able to go online and, for instance, peddle his “new saxy Christmas sweater.” (I don’t care how much you hate his music – you’ll hate his sweater more.)
The film starts with the premise that Kenny G is hugely successful and works really hard and makes music that lots of people despise, and that’s pretty much where it ends 97 minutes later. It’s a very entertaining trip, but it doesn’t really go anywhere: If you go in loving Kenny G you’ll come out that way, and if you go in hating him you won’t change your mind.
In fact, if your opinion of G is on the negative side (full disclosure: as a former music writer, I have absolutely no interest in anything he’s ever recorded), you’ll find plenty of ammunition in “Listening to Kenny G.” When Lane asks him what he loves about music, he seems momentarily thrown by the question. “I don’t know if I love music that much,” he finally says. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with hard work, practice, preparation and striving for perfection.”
And for this former accounting major, the key to everything seems to be work ethic, not artistry. He even applies that to the access he has given to Lane’s cameras. “Are you getting what you want?” he says at one point. “Am I talking too much? Am not I talking enough? I want to be the best interview you ever had.”
For a man who claims not to care about his critics, he’s hyper-aware of how he’s perceived. When the cameras follow him back to his old high school, he muses, “I think walking in with a saxophone would be more iconic.” When the administration asks him to sign the wall, he’s visibly agitated as he tries to figure out what to write. “This is a lot of pressure,” he says, before hitting on, “Go for what you love, and practice, practice, practice.”
We also get to see him baking a pie, flying a plane, doing laundry and playing golf, all of which he’s apparently good at and all of which he uses as testament to his work ethic: “Everything I try to do well, I do.”
The film goes down the usual biographical roads, but it’s more interested in the relationship between the artist, his fans and his critics, and the question of where Kenny G belongs in the world of jazz in general. He was inspired by a jazz musician, Grover Washington Jr., best known for recording pop and R&B songs, and he frankly admits, “(John) Coltrane, Charlie Parker – that music was never heartfelt to me.” (When he looks at a painting of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon and Thelonious Monk and can’t identify Monk.)
But he’s proud that he’s the face (or is it the hair?) of “smooth jazz,” a radio format that sprang up during his peak in the late ’80s and early ’90s. “You can call it a new jazz sound,” he says. “I don’t think a lot of people could say they created a new sound, but I did.”
And while he hasn’t put out an album of new material since 2015, Kenny G says he’s ready to drop a bomb on the jazz world: He’s actually been listening to Coltrane and Miles, and they’ve influenced him to make an album titled “New Standards,” by which he means he’s writing new songs that have the ability to become standards. One of them includes virtual duets with the late Stan Getz. “The jazz community is gonna hate it,” he says, no doubt accurately. “And that doesn’t concern me.”
By this point in the film it’s possible to be amused by Kenny G, and maybe even feel as if the eager hard worker doesn’t deserve all of the vitriol he’s gotten. But Lane keeps giving him rope, and by the end he’s fashioning himself an intricate noose.
“I’m gonna write new classical music,” he asserts. “You’re gonna hear it and say, ‘Is that Beethoven? Is that Bach? Is that Brahms?’ No, it’s G.” Then he adds that he’s written music that is definitely going to win an Oscar, describing a couple of compositions that are just waiting for the right movie. “It’ll win the Academy Award,” he declares. “I know it.”
(Note to Kenny: By describing music you have already written that just needs the right movie, you have publicly disqualified that music from Oscar consideration. If music isn’t written specifically for the movie, it’s not eligible. Sorry about that.) Stuff like this can be amusing, even if it immediately turns him back into a cartoon after the movie has spent 90 minutes trying to humanize him. But, you know, he’s a successful cartoon with a famous head of hair, so why not enjoy the joke?