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TIFF: Listening to Kenny G is about as pleasantly inoffensive as his music

Listening to Kenny G (HBO)

Penny Lane’s profile on the smooth jazz superstar can’t quite muster up enough energy to make its explorations of his notoriety (good and bad) sing.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.)

If you learn nothing else from watching the documentary Listening to Kenny G, you will at least come away from it with the knowledge that the saxophone player who essentially serves as the living embodiment of “smooth jazz” is the best-selling instrumentalist of all time. You will know this because it is a fact that is invoked repeatedly throughout the film by his fans and supporters, generally when pressed as to what it is that they like about him.

At the same time, there appears to be an almost equal number of people whose loathing for the man, his work, and all that he represents is expressed with a virulence that goes well beyond the usual backlash that inevitably follows any highly successful element of contemporary popular culture.

I confess that while I have a decent-sized music collection that encompasses any number of genres, I do not currently nor have I ever owned one of his albums and if I have any friends or loved ones who do (and with his sales figures, it is entirely possible), this is a fact that they have not shared with me. And yet, while his music, which is to jazz music what Olive Garden is to authentic Italian cooking, is not my cup of tea, I have never quite understood the level of hatred that he inspires in detractors running the gamut from professional music critics to Internet trolls—his music just seems too bland to get especially worked up over one way or another. 

Listening to Kenny G (HBO)
Listening to Kenny G (HBO)

Therefore, I was curious to see this documentary from Penny Lane, whose previous feature was the engrossing Hail Satan? (2019), to see its insights as to how the same cultural artifact can inspire such grand passion—arguably greater than the passion that went into making it—from both supporters and detractors. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really bother to go along with that potentially tantalizing pitch. Although it touches on the hatred that he inspires, most of that negative commentary springs from a group of music critics and experts and even their commentary is nowhere near as cutting or acidic as one might expect.

The closest it comes is when the discussion inevitably comes around to the notion of white musicians appropriating the work and legacies of Black performers to far greater commercial success than those predecessors dreamed of accomplishing. That said, this is a subject that is hardly specific to Kenny G, and the film doesn’t really offer up any new ideas on that particular topic. Though G does offer one cringeworthy moment when he describes his initial ambition to be considered the white Grover Washington Jr.

As for Kenny G himself, he comes off as perfectly genial and likable—the kind of guy who says “Gosh!” a lot—and he seems untroubled by the fact that his work inspires such distaste in so many people. It’s no surprise to discover that he was the star of his high school jazz band and that he believes that one of the keys to his success is that he continues to practice with intensity in order to create his flawless sound.

Listening to Kenny G is a lot like actually listening to Kenny G—harmless and inoffensive as can be, but largely forgettable when all is said and done.

And yet, while that attitude is certainly admirable in a sense, it seems strange to apply it to a musical genre whose greatest moments tend to revolve around the spontaneity and give-and-take between the musicians, two things you are not likely to experience at one of his concerts. If he were a pilot (and, as the doc shows us, he is), he would be working for United and striving to make sure that every trip is as smooth and flawless as possible—alas, jazz is a form of music that tends to be more effective when performed by players who are more like test pilots who go out every day to test boundaries while realizing that they could just as easily crash and burn as triumph.

In the end, Listening to Kenny G is a lot like actually listening to Kenny G—harmless and inoffensive as can be, but largely forgettable when all is said and done. His fans will no doubt love it and may even be amused by the scenes in which their idol is dissed and dismissed. For others, it may prove to be more of a slog, though it is highly unlikely that they would be watching it in the first place. In the end, it doesn’t really answer the questions of why Kenny G is so popular and why that popularity infuriates so many other people. Somehow, that seems oddly appropriate.

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Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.