Penny Lane’s “Listening to Kenny G” is an insightful, thought provoking look at the easy-listening saxophonist’s successful career in music. Lane chronicles the saxophonist’s rise to fame while also, humorously, exploring the love and the intense hate his music incites. Film screens in the Toronto International Film Festival.
How did you decide to make a film about Kenny G?
Bill Simmons (creator of HBO’s Music Box series) contacted me and asked me to pitch him ideas for a music documentary. I really wanted to work with him, but I was like I can’t think of a category of documentary that I’d be less interested in. So I thought, let me approach it like I’m back in art school on an assignment. Like, you must make a music documentary. I know that I’m really interested in the idea of artistic taste. Then I thought, maybe a film about a musician who is objectively popular, by way of record sales, but is also hated by the “critical class.” Once I had that idea, I thought of Kenny right away.
In the film Kenny says he will boycott this documentary if his first music video was part of the film, which it was. So, is he boycotting your TIFF premiere?
No. He’s going to be at the premiere. In that one scene you see him change his mind. He’s like, “No. You can’t show that video.” But then I promise that I’ll make sure everyone knows he hates it. Then he’s OK with it. I love that. He’s just a really reasonable person.
Some of the most humorous parts of the doc are the interviews you did with various jazz critics including New York Times critic Ben Ratliff. How did you determine who to speak to for this doc?
It wasn’t obvious who should be the [featured] critics. In every other music documentary, it’s like, “Get the person who wrote the biography of the artist.” But in this case, no one has written a fucking biography of Kenny G and no one is going to write one. So it was really more about identifying people who had a sense of humor and nuanced way of viewing the world.
Many music docs these days are produced by the subject. Did Kenny serve as a producer on this project?
No. He had no control or creative say.
After making this film would you say you are a Kenny G fan?
I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of his music. I’ve definitely gained an appreciation for what it is and where it comes from and what people like about it. I will say that there is one song — “Forever in Love” — that I have developed a very emotional reaction to.
The doc reveals that Kenny G is not only one of best-selling artists of all time, but also a pilot, an award winning golf player, one of the first investors in Starbucks and to top it all off he has a sense of humor about his haters. Would you say he’s having the last laugh?
It’s funny you put it in those terms, because early on one of the working titles was “Kenny G Has the Last Laugh.” That’s how it felt to me. He’s doing great. It doesn’t matter what music snobs have to say. They don’t hurt his feelings. He’s laughing all the way to the bank and he’s just really with himself and proud of the work he does. There’s nothing that anyone can do about that.