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TV/Film Reviews

Film Review: ‘Listening to Kenny G’ (dir. Penny Lane) | TIFF 2021

You know Kenny G for his one-in-a-trillion musical talent, but do you really know the artist playing the saxophone and the man behind those records? His 40-year career should have given us enough time to learn about him, but apparently not.

You know Kenny G for his one-in-a-trillion musical talent, but do you really know the artist playing the saxophone and the man behind those records? His 40-year career should have given us enough time to learn about him, but apparently not.

Director Penny Lane‘s documentary expertly plays up the tired cliché of people who thrive on disliking his music and breaks down the barrier between pop culture and the person, Kenneth Gorelick (yeah, did you even know that was his real name?).

Kenny G is an interesting character. When you hear an Aretha Franklin or Whitney Houston or Beyoncé open their mouth and sing, you know it’s them. It’s their voice after all. Kenny G is different though because he’s playing an instrument. It truly shouldn’t be as recognizable or immediately iconic as it is, but that’s the marvel that is Kenny G.

Much like how jazz is a conversation, this documentary plays out in a conversational manner. Penny Lane assembled a myriad of jazz critics and writers to share their insight on G’s career. We’re they especially enlightening? Well, frankly, not really. But that’s also kind of the point. There aren’t many scholars out there who are tapped into the intricacies of Kenny G’s rise to fame, and that’s kind of astonishing considering his profound impact.

He revolutionized the genre of jazz and found a way to have longevity in the commercial pop space that no other solo instrumentalist has ever done or come remotely close to doing. In this film, he is able to reclaim his own narrative and redefine himself in terms of pop culture.

Blazing a trail where there wasn’t anything resembling a path to being with, Kenny G is one of those artists that everyone has an opinion on, but why? He gets made fun of on “Saturday Night Live,” late night segments, and dozens of television shows. He’s considered an easy target. Let’s poke some fun at somebody that has universal recognition so it appeals to everybody at once.

Right now, you can throw on a blindfold, click on any streaming service, and find plenty of music docs about prolific artists. It makes sense. Musicians are fascinating in every sense of the word, and their lives and careers are often entertaining enough to watch. However, we’ve moved past the need for a Wikipedia personification. These docs need to channel an important facet of their career and dig their heels in to really work and be memorable. This does that.

The way that I, and many others I’m sure, often deem a documentary worthy is if it leaves a lasting enough impression that its audience never views its subject the same again. I don’t think anyone who watches Listening to Kenny G will ever be able to think about Kenny G the way they did before this. There’s no denying that he’s one of the hardest working musicians out there, and he does a pretty flawless job at making it look effortless.

Listening to Kenny G premiered during the Toronto International Film Festival this year. HBO is set to release the film as part of Bill Simmons’ Music Box series later this year.

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