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Listening to Kenny G (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jun 21, 2022


Featuring Kenny G, Clive Davis, James Gardiner, Ben Ratliff and Will Layman.

Directed by Penny Lane.

Distributed by HBO. 96 minutes. Not Rated.

Screened at the 2021 Philadelphia Film Festival.

It must be kind of a weird to be Kenny G.

He is a man who has worked hard at his craft to become incredibly successful. He has sold 75 million albums and had multiple hit singles. He is the best-selling instrumental artist in history. He was intimately responsible for the creation of an entirely new musical style (smooth jazz). He has traveled the world, played sold out concerts and been able to sustain a career for almost 40 years. His song stylings are so distinctive that most people will be able to know it is him as soon as his music is put on. He even is in The Guinness Book of World Records for the longest sustained musical note played on the saxophone. (47 minutes!)

Yet, he has found such musical ubiquity that a backlash formed. He is in a select group – together with artists like Nickelback and Coldplay – where many people see his name as a punchline. For as many people who love his music (and there are fewer of those now than in his heyday in the 80s and 90s), there are just as many people who actively hate his playing. He is not jazz, they rail, just soft blowing chintz and lace – musical wallpaper.

It is to the point where when there is finally a documentary made about his life and his career, about half of it has to deal with the fact that he is greatly looked at as a joke. Even the talking head experts recruited to discuss his music and its effect on the world are not particularly fans of his work and are quite open about that fact. They discuss such issues as cultural appropriation, imitation versus than innovation, programmed sometimes perfunctory performances and sheer musical shallowness or laziness.

What did a nice Jewish kid from Seattle named Kenny Gorelick, who never even planned on becoming a professional musician (he good-naturedly acknowledges here that he went to school to become an accountant) do to deserve this kind of indignity?

He became extraordinarily famous.

For the record, I have never been a big Kenny G fan, however I thought some of his songs were pretty and could acknowledge that the man had some talent as a saxophonist. I have also never quite understood why his detractors had such a hate on for him. It wasn’t necessarily my type of music, but I respect that other people love it. Everyone has their own musical tastes. There is a place in the world for a Kenny G.

Luckily, from the evidence of this film, Kenny G seems to be in on the joke. He seems to be a truly nice, quiet, giving, good-natured man who is rather shocked by his own success. He doesn’t take the adulation too much to heart, nor does he take the take the criticism overly personally. He understands how he is seen – both for good and for bad – and he mostly seems to have it in perspective.

This perspective can also point out what many of the critics dislike about the guy. He admits here that he can’t necessarily say he is a music fan; he considers himself a craftsman. He believes in hard work and becoming the best you can be at something – whether that thing is flying, golfing (both of which he acknowledges he is as passionate about as music), investing (as if he didn’t have enough money, he was one of the early investors in Starbucks) or being a musician.

In fact, the part of his music which he personally appears to be most proud of is the fact that to this day, no matter how famous he has become, he still practices three hours daily. And he never, ever takes anything for granted.

Gorelick is a good-natured, charming interview. He never shows the least bit of bad humor or petulance, he recognizes his place in the musical sphere and does not seem to be weighed down by the constant criticism he has faced.

At the same time he is open to self-reflection. When director Penny Lane mentions white privilege, Kenny G instinctively deflects by saying that he never considers his skin color, however when Lane insists upon him really reflecting upon it, he does acknowledge that yes, as a white artist there were probably avenues open to him that a black artist may not have enjoyed.

Listening to Kenny G may indeed change how many people… well, listen to Kenny G. It is not only a fascinating look at a musical career, but also at how we as a society relate to music. Kenny G may not be the best musician ever; however he found his own niche and was able to thrive in it. If you don’t like his music, fine, other people do.

Listening to Kenny G is a warts-and-all look at a musician and his place in the bigger picture in popular culture. Kenny Gorelick appears to be a genuine and contented man who is willing to work hard for his success. People have become famous for a whole lot less. Maybe it’s time for the world to reanalyze the man. This movie should help that happen.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved. Posted: November 1, 2021.


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