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HBO's Listening to Kenny G is at its best when it doesn't focus on Kenny G's music being polarizing

  • The Music Box documentary's "animating question is why a musician who has brought an abundance of pleasure to so many listeners makes so many others almost incoherently angry," says Glenn Kenny. "Some interviewees, including Kenny G himself, imply that judgments against his work are de facto judgments of the people who love it. That’s a specious conclusion, one which the movie could have unpacked better. But Listening is very good at doing other things. As a music industry story, Kenny G’s rise, engineered by the mogul Clive Davis but at times bucked by the artist himself, is fascinating. The analysis of the link between what makes Kenny G a star and what makes him annoying is spot-on — particularly in its treatment of his relationship to jazz. Celebrated artists in that genre like John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk weren’t merely inspired players; they were bandleaders whose musical conceptions stressed instrumental interplay. With Kenny G, his sax is the thing."


    • Listening to Kenny G's main aim is to question where those aggressive responses to his almost pathologically inoffensive music come from: Director Penny Lane also explores "how to think about the gulf between his haters and his global legions of devoted fans," says Carl Wilson. "Her film includes inquiries into his rise and the scope of his popularity; interviews with fans, radio programmers, and others about his appeal; conversations with mostly skeptical jazz critics; and, most prominently, a series of interviews and outings with the cascadingly ringleted horn man himself."
    • Director Penny Lane was trying to subvert the music documentary: "I was a teenager in the '90s, so that was the height of Kenny's super stardom," says Lane. "He was literally ubiquitous. Everywhere you went, it was Kenny G's music. So, in the one way, I didn't really think anything about it. Someone in my film says something about it being "like musical furniture." And I think I thought of it that way, like it was so part of the world, but I didn't think about it at all. And on the other hand, to the extent that his name was brought up specifically in the world that I lived in, which was kind of like punk rock riot grrrl, it was not in a favorable light. So not a very strong personal feeling, but a strong sense of what he meant culturally." Lane adds: "I think that the problem with a lot of biographical documentaries, but maybe even specifically music documentaries, is that they're kind of conflict free. It's just kind of like, here's a person, everyone in the film is here to say how great they are. Two hours later, we've all agreed. So I was really interested when (executive producer) Bill Simmons approached me to do a music documentary and trying to subvert that a little bit, find a topic that contains some conflict. I was looking at catalogs of artists to jog my memory and give me ideas. And when I saw Kenny's name, I just knew he was the perfect person."

    TOPICS: Kenny G, HBO, Listening to Kenny G, Music Box, Penny Lane, Documentaries