HBO Max's Kenny G Documentary Asks You to Rethink Your Musical Snobbery

Director Penny Lane talks about making her new documentary about the curly-haired sax man.

listening to kenny g

Penny Lane's new documentary Listening to Kenny G, premiering this week on HBO Max as part of its Music Box series, probably won't change your opinion about the soprano sax man's chill tunes. If you think his work is noxious, uninspired elevator music, you probably will still think that when the credits roll. But turning you onto his music is not what Lane set out to do with her fascinating glimpse into one of pop music's most unlikely stars.

Listening to Kenny G is a portrait of a man whose raging self-confidence will probably take you by surprise. In interviews with Lane, Kenneth Bruce Gorelick is overwhelmingly assured in a way that borders on hubris, but is nonetheless charming. He's a guy who genuinely believes practice makes perfect and that he will win an Oscar one day. Lane clearly delights in showing her audience Kenny G's personality, while also trying to figure out why he means so much to so many people and makes others so virulently angry. Speaking during the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film premiered in September, Lane tells us about what she learned from investigating the strange phenomenon of Kenny G.

Thrillist: What were your thoughts about Kenny G before you started researching this?
Penny Lane: I was a teenager in the '90s, so that was the height of Kenny's super stardom. 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.

Where did you start in your own research process? Did you start just by listening to everything?
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 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.

The next step is also important because when I started watching archival interviews and stuff with him and looking at his social media channel, I also could see that he was a person who had a sense of humor and wasn't afraid even to laugh at himself a little bit. One of Kenny's more endearing qualities is that he's just so self-confident. He doesn't care. He doesn't care what some tiny percentage of the population who thinks of themselves as more important than everyone else thinks. So I wouldn't have approached just any artist with this idea. It certainly mattered that I had some concept that Kenny might be game for something like this.

The interviews with him are fascinating. The moment where you hold on him as he stands up and says, "I want this to be the best interview ever," is just amazing and really gives you so much insight into who this person is. What surprised you about him?
I mean, honestly, I knew that his incredible self-confidence would be provocative to a lot of people. Even when we were putting together rough cuts and getting feedback—that's often something you do in your friend group—a lot of my friends were sort of reacting almost if they were angry. And I was like, "I love this." Being presented with someone with such self-confidence can be actually really challenging if you yourself don't have any. I just thought that it was a whole other layer of provocation that I wasn't anticipating with the film, but really leaned into. So yeah, that part where he says he wants to be the best interview I've ever had, that's how approaches everything. That's just Kenny's M.O. in life.

So many people, even great artists, have an idea of imposter syndrome, and this is a man who comes in there and has none of that.
Whatever the opposite of that is.

Did that take you totally off guard?
It did, and I was always looking for the crack in it and never found it. I'm not saying that Kenny's not a person with depth. The film was not a long-term attempt to delve deep into his personality. I'm sure if I was with him every day for five years, I would've captured some moments of not self-confidence. But in general, that's just who he is. That's his self-presentation, and it seems to be pretty authentic.

Listening to Kenny G

How did you think about giving voice to Kenny's critics?
I'll just say it was a really hard edit. On the one hand, it was just such a joy to make this film. Every part of it was fun. Kenny was fun to hang out with. We were all having a great time, and I think that that joy comes through. But when I got into the edit, it became actually really challenging. Because I wanted to make sure the film would be interesting and also challenging for whoever was watching it. And that would include Kenny's fan base, right? Because it's a music documentary, the typical expectation is that people who are watching it would be fans. I know the documentary audience, and I know the HBO documentary audience. I know the Toronto Film Festival audience. And I was not imagining that my audience would start out as Kenny G fans. And so, I had to find a way to structure it where, wherever you fell on that spectrum, or even if you've never really heard of him—some younger people don't really know who he is—I wanted to make sure it would have an arc and a journey that would feel both pleasured and also challenged by it. It meant a lot of balancing act stuff.

It goes to what you said earlier, that a lot of people go into music documentaries as fans of the subject and a lot of music documentaries reaffirm that a person is amazing and a genius. And obviously, that's not exactly the case with Kenny. If you think Kenny's music is the worst, you might not come away from this thinking any differently. How did you approach that?
I'm an artist making a film about an artist, and that's a really great place to start. So Kenny and I have very different ideas about art—what it is, what makes it good, what makes it valuable, how we would define excellence or greatness—but interviewing him and being in the studio with him and really listening to his ideas about art, I was struck with the fact that this is just how most people think about art. It's just true. I taught art to undergraduates for years. Huge swaths of my classes would be just me trying to say that art was more than beauty and excellence, the kind of excellent demonstration of a difficult skill plus aesthetic loveliness. That is what most people think, that's what art is, the end. So I was sort of interested in the fact that Kenny was saying all this stuff and I was like, "Oh, of course, this is what he thinks." This what everyone thinks. Which is like, only weirdos in this weird little cultural sphere that I live in think otherwise. We are the weird ones. And I think that was a big thing for me: Let's look at your position in society. Where are you coming from? And I really think that there's a kind of snobbery and elitism that is so pervasive in the world that I live in, and it makes me absolutely insane. And I feel like this film was an opportunity for me to explore that a little bit.

The HBO Documentary audience and the TIFF audience is probably coming to this documentary with some of that snobbery intact.
And again, it's not to say you're wrong. I mean, it's just to say: What is the basis of these judgments? At its core when you start to drill down in the matter of any artistic judgment, you're just going to find someone's opinion. There's nothing else there. This applies to myself too; I don't want to be a hypocrite here, I should expose my own hypocrisy. If I really love a film and someone else hates it, I get very angry. I think that they're wrong. I mean, so we all are this way. But I think it's great to step back and just remember that we are all this way and that these are not deep ethical judgements. These are not great truths of the universe. These are just judgements. So I thought that getting to know Kenny's fans and what they love about his music was a good reminder for me that not everyone is coming to art for the same reason.

When the film veers toward Kenny's influence in China, one of your interview subjects explained how the structures of his songs are typical in Chinese music, and that's why he's so beloved there. That was something that very much challenged my idea of how people listen to music.
Absolutely. I mean, I could have gone so much further down that road. There's a kind of middle section of the film that explores both Kenny's meteoric rise to international super stardom, which was very unexpected. Like, look back on it, you're like, "Oh, that's strange that that happened." There's no other precedent for anything like this, actually, in the history of music. And at the same time, that part of the film is really about why. Why was he so successful? On the one hand, it's about his gift with melody, his gift with coming up with catchy, memorable tunes and all that. And another part of it is really about the uses that that music gets put to. So, it's music that is good for weddings. It's music that is good for corporate offices. It has particular uses. And I think that topic is something I'd like to think more about in future projects. Like, what are the uses to which we put art? And those uses then become rationales for judgment.

How did Kenny react to some of the challenges you put forward in the interviews?
I think he is really smart, and he is an open, authentic person. What you see in those moments of being challenged is very authentic. I was there. You see the wheels starting in his head. He's like, "Oh, I've really never thought about this before in that way, and that in that way." But it's not like me coming along and offering him this challenge is going to fundamentally change who he is. I mean, he's 60-something years old. He's got a lot more years on the tit than me. His ideas about music and culture, they simply form in a different era. And I'm not trying to say anything one way or the other about it, other than to state the fact that it's true. I mean, his world of the 1970s Seattle funk scene, there were very different ideas about things like cultural appropriation at that point than there are now. I think Kenny is capable of changing his mind and evolving. I don't expect that me coming with a different point of view once in his life is going to be like an a-ha moment that—What is it that we would expect? Never play jazz again? I don't know what the outcome could be other than what it was.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.