Critics Pick

‘Listening to Kenny G’ Review: You’ll Never Think About the Pop Sax Artist the Same Way Again

Director Penny Lane ('Nuts!') examines how popular success has made the top-selling instrumentalist one of the most reviled figures in commercial music, a field known for co-opting the counterculture.

Listening to Kenny G
Courtesy of HBO Documentary Films

Say what you will, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Kenny G. I’m a sucker for the pure, spun-sugar sax appeal of instrumental hits like “Songbird,” “Silhouette” and the aptly named “Sentimental.” At first blush, Penny Lane’s ruthlessly entertaining “Listening to Kenny G” — part hatchet job, part sophisticated meta-inquiry into the slippery subject of aesthetics — makes it sound like that’s something shameful to admit. But as a film critic with fairly esoteric tastes in cinema, I’ve never been embarrassed that my preferences in music are hopelessly square by comparison. Nor should you.

At the risk of further endangering my credibility, there was a time in my life, thanks to the mail-order scam that was the BMG Music Club, when I owned more albums by Michael Bolton than any other artist. But Kenny G was right up there (the two long-haired ’90s play-it-safe phenoms even teamed up a few times). Do I listen to that music now? Not really. My tastes have evolved in the ensuing quarter-century, during which time the commercial music industry has cratered. But I don’t begrudge those artists their popularity, and I don’t look down on the super-fans — like the guy Lane interviews on the sidewalk outside one of the saxophonist’s concerts — who start their day by asking Alexa to play Kenny G.

Did you know that a decade or so ago in China (where Western music was only available by bootleg), Kenny G’s “Going Home” became the wind-down song of workers across the country? As retail shops are closing and people are clocking out of their jobs, that’s the tune that serenades them, prompting New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff to ask “Is Kenny G’s music a weapon of consent?” in the doc. Turns out, Lane knows a whole lot more about Kenneth Gorelick than most people, and as such, she realized that no one wants a straightforward bio of the Seattle-raised, world-renowned sax player, so her installment of Bill Simmons’ “Music Box” series for HBO is something else entirely.

Sure, he revolutionized the commercial pop music establishment, but that’s almost beside the point. Before Kenny G, no solo instrumentalist had sold anywhere near the number of albums that he has, or received that kind of widespread cross-format radio play. Is he a jazz artist? R&B? Adult contemporary? Easy listening? The answer is yes, all of the above. Is he a good musician? Well, that’s a more complicated question, which Lane unpacks in an unconventional but thoroughly enlightening way: by inviting his dissenters to weigh in as well.

Music docs are a dime a dozen these days. And no matter how interesting the personal lives of the artists themselves — no matter what adversity they’ve overcome en route to the top, or what setbacks they’ve encountered once they reach it — the movies inevitably wind up feeling more or less the same: so much superficial fan service, the film equivalent of another hefty coffee-table book for the collection, glorified homages to the underappreciated genius of the musicians in question. But can a musician ever be overappreciated?

Kenny G certainly doesn’t identify as such. (Turns out, some of his millions come from a savvy Starbucks investment early on. The film also informs us that he’s just as passionate about golf and flying as he is about playing sax.) There’s a lot you may not know about Kenny G, even if there are few places one can escape his influence. His soaring, slightly reedy, feel-good melodies are the musical wallpaper of our lives, the eye-glazing background accompaniment of shopping-mall escalator rides and ’90s hold music. They’re also the tunes that thousands have chosen to play at their weddings, or to which you may well have been conceived. So what is it about that sound that makes the experts wince?

Lane starts the film by playing Kenny G’s most popular singles for a handful of music critics and jazz scholars, asking them to share their thoughts. They don’t hold back, accusing him of everything from artistic laziness to shameless cultural appropriation. Jazz doesn’t exist in a vacuum, explains PopMatters pundit Will Layman. It’s a musical dialogue reaching back generations, whose call-and-response style reacts to what has come before, whereas Kenny G gives nothing back. Concludes Layman: “This is not sex; this is masturbation.”

Ouch. But not wrong. Ironically, that’s what many people love about Kenny G: He’s corny, but sincere. Let the snobs sneer. So many people have a tendency to sabotage their own success, whereas Gorelick’s essentially the made-it-big version of those guys you hear playing sax in subway tunnels or park clearings, making indecent love to their instruments. Eyes closed, head back, they play from the heart, doing elaborate loop-de-loops for your approval. Kenny G once held a note for 45 minutes, setting a Guinness World Record in the process. In the doc, he boasts about his “patented” circular breathing technique, and demonstrates it at concerts, high-fiving fans as he stretches that squeal.

The critics point out that any musician can do that; they just don’t make a show of it. That’s part of what the haters object to: the show-offy way Kenny G puts himself out front, as if sax players should remain invisible, patiently waiting for their solo to shine. James Gardiner, a Black composer who helped inspire Gorelick in high school, remembers the first time his former student did that onstage, extending a note for 10 minutes. He describes it as the moment Kenny G “found his soul” … although it’s the lack of “soul” that seems to bother the pros — the way Gorelick doesn’t seem to know or care much about the jazz tradition. (Kenny G’s creepy posthumous collaboration with Louis Armstrong seems to demonstrate as much. But he’s working on it, as his upcoming “New Standards” project reflects.)

Lane is a master archive digger, unearthing priceless artifacts, some damning, others endearing. Her brand of exhaustively researched, meticulously illustrated essay-film specializes in asking audiences to reconsider unpopular or controversial figures, to put their legacies in a more informed context, as she did in “Our Nixon” and “Hail Satan?” In that respect, Kenny G is ripe for reappraisal — by his fans, by his critics and even by himself. At one point, prompted by Lane, he pauses to consider whether his whiteness might have opened certain doors for him. “Yeah, I think I benefited,” he admits. (He even recalls the all-around tackiness of the “G Force” album cover, on which his photo is distorted to such a degree, one can’t discern his race.)

Where did Kenny G get his signature sound? Following a music recommendation from Gardiner in high school, “I tried to become the white Grover Washington Jr.,” he recalls. To illustrate, Lane samples an incredibly similar-sounding piece of smooth jazz. That’s what the radio stations came to dub Kenny G’s genre of music: “smooth jazz.” Lane interviews legendary Arista Records producer Clive Davis and the DJs who helped coin the term. She talks to college professors who put Kenny G’s success in the context of Black art and the mass-oriented music industry of the late 20th century.

But this isn’t some high-concept write-around, of the sort that entertainment journalists are sometimes obliged to do (à la Gay Talese’s infamous “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”) when the subject doesn’t want to participate. True to its title, “Listening to Kenny G” lets us hear straight from the source: Kenny G is right there, front and center — and enthusiastically ingratiating as can be — determined to give Lane the “best interview ever.” As with his music, however, he seems to miss that it’s not just about energy or effort; it’s substance that counts.

Too often, his answers come across smug or downright ignorant. Contrast all that talk of “practice” with the way he sounds when noodling at home, without the reverb filters responsible for giving you those goose bumps. But then, this is hardly an authorized biography either. Lane didn’t give Gorelick final approval of what made the cut, and there’s a lot about the movie that will surely make him wince. You too, perhaps.

It’s not hip to like Kenny G. These days, I calm my nerves to the likes of Ludovico Einaudi, but if he gets too popular, I’m sure the world will turn vicious. Lane’s movie proves refreshingly open-minded about the disconnect between what the experts appreciate and popular taste. Believe it or not, critics seem to be less snooty, more open to “vulgar” forms of mainstream entertainment than ever. From my perch as an arbiter of cinema, I’ve been known to bristle at Michael Bay, and sincerely believe that Marvel movies are ruining the medium, but it’s not a zero-sum situation. If such blockbusters didn’t exist, those same audiences wouldn’t suddenly start buying tickets to Lars von Trier movies.

I’ve always said, “There’s no apologizing for taste.” It’s a central plank of my critical philosophy: People are allowed to like what they like. Drawing from a specific well of experience, I can tell you how this or that movie might have been improved; I can steer you to better examples of similar things, or point out how it’s derivative. But it’s not my job to make you feel badly about what appeals to you, and my often-milquetoast taste in music helps to keep me honest. Critics of any medium tend to celebrate innovation. They appreciate it when people break the rules in interesting ways, or else, they respect when they follow them “correctly” — and Kenny G strikes them as a spaz with a sax, the musical equivalent of the guy who makes balloon animals at a birthday party.

Personally, when it comes to music, I don’t necessarily seek out work that challenges me, the way I do with movies. Ask yourself: What kind of art hangs on your walls at home? Is it the difficult, avant-garde and conceptual stuff that’s celebrated in museums, or is it paintings that make you feel good? Most jazz stresses me out, demanding too much of my attention to be played in the background. At the end of the day, it’s my ears and my brain that are doing the listening, and critics don’t get to decide what goes inside. Penny Lane’s film will make you think differently about how you consume music — and even whether “consuming” is an appropriate way to approach it. But as far as I’m concerned, you can listen to Kenny G if you want to.

‘Listening to Kenny G’ Review: You’ll Never Think About the Pop Sax Artist the Same Way Again

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (TIFF Docs), Sept. 12, 2021. Running time: 96 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) An HBO release of an HBO Documentary Films presentation of a Ringer Films production, in association with Spinning Nancy. Producer: Gabriel Sedgwick. Co-producer: Nickolas Hasse. Executive producers: Bill Simmons, Jody Gerson, Marc Cimino. Co-executive producers: Geoff Chow, Sean Fennessey, Noah Malale Supervising producer: Adam Gibbs. Consulting producer: Robert Alexander.
  • Crew: Director: Penny Lane. Camera: Naiti Gámez. Editors: Cindy Lee, Adam Bolt. Music supervisor: Aminé Ramer.
  • With: Kenny G.