Listening to Kenny G – Toronto 2021
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HBO’s ‘Listening to Kenny G’: TV Review | TIFF 2021
The director of the documentary ‘Hail Satan?’ turns Kenny G into her latest reclamation project in this documentary, part of Bill Simmons’ ‘Music Box’ anthology.
Documentarian Penny Lane likes a challenge. After the humanizing, Super 8-driven portrait Our Nixon, she raised the stakes with her sympathetic-to-the-devil doc Hail Satan?
But where do you go from there? What widely maligned figure can you celebrate, or at least validate — or at least tolerate — after Tricky Dick and Ol’ Scratch?
Listening to Kenny G
The Bottom Line Good-hearted, if padded, sympathy for a musical devil.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Director: Penny Lane
The answer, it turns out, will either surprise you or seem oddly predictable, which might concern Lane if her goal is to be an artistic contrarian and not just a cinematic troll. Her latest reclamation project is smooth-jazz legend Kenny G, who receives the director’s lightheartedly introspective treatment in HBO’s Listening to Kenny G.
Like Garret Price’s recent Woodstock 99: Peace, Love and Rage, Listening to Kenny G is part of Bill Simmons’ Music Box anthology series. Though entertaining and very occasionally revelatory, this new entry suggests that Simmons has forgotten one of the lessons from the early entries of his ESPN 30 for 30 franchise: Not every documentary has to be feature length. Listening to Kenny G is never really boring at 96 minutes, but there’s no point being made here that couldn’t have been made in an hour.
In the opening scene, Lane is heard asking the artist formerly known as Kenneth Gorelick, “How are you feeling?” With a smile he replies, “Underappreciated in general. But other than that, I’m fine.” Whether or not Lane’s intent is to be seen as a troll — in the internet parlance, not the under-the-bridge parlance — Kenny G is absolutely and completely a troll, which is probably the best thing I learned from Listening to Kenny G.
And how could he not be? If you spend your life collecting absurd amounts of money with one hand and dismissive and derisive commentary with the other, being a troll might be the only legitimate response. You could either internalize and self-flagellate every time somebody criticizes you for destroying popular music and for being a goofball with curly hair, or you could smile broadly yet sheepishly and, to transition to sports-taunting, point in the direction of the scoreboard. Kenny G, who doesn’t express an iota of malice at any point in the documentary, knows the exact sales of every one of his albums, and takes the healthier path.
You might think that the film’s validation of a maligned icon from the ’90s would make it a bit like the recent Netflix documentary on painter Bob Ross, but it’s actually more like recent depictions of Anthony Fauci, because if you come away learning much of anything about Kenny G, it’s that Kenny is a hard worker.
“I want to be the best interview you’ve ever had, and if that means sitting here for 12 hours and not eating or drinking, I’ll do it. That’s my problem,” he says. The secret of Kenny G’s success, if you’re not so cynical as to attribute it to a collective lack of musical taste around the world, is that he likes to work hard. He practices his sax for three hours a day, and he has dedicated comparable time to learning to fly airplanes and to golfing, baking, doing laundry, being a father. It’s here you might wonder why neither of Kenny G’s sons is in the documentary, why no mention is made of his marriage, etc. I guess that’s the result of the decision that only Kenny G himself is qualified to give commentary on Kenny G the man (as opposed to Kenny G the phenomenon).
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Kenny G in Listening to Kenny G. Courtesy of HBO.
Penny Lane is back with her newest documentary, Listening to Kenny G, which goes into why he’s such a polarizing jazz musician.
Lane interviews a number of jazz artists and critics in hopes of getting to the bottom of finding out why Kenny G is so polarizing.
She makes sure we here from a wide variety of people. You either like him or don’t. And for some, he’s not representative of what real jazz is–sound familiar? But in as much as this documentary is about why he’s so polarizing, Kenny G opens up about his life and how he deals with the criticism. Having already been scarred, he says that the jazz police will no longer rock his world.
There was a point early in his career when the studio wanted him to write songs about the ghetto. At that point, Kenny became so disgusted because he was a Jewish musician from Seattle.
And so when he goes on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, he plays “Songbird” instead of the single he was expected to play. “Songbird” would go onto change his career and chart in the top 5! Clive Davis had written off to radio programmers and so the song kept climbing in the charts. And then Carson’s booker comes calling for Kenny G again.
Kenny G offered a donation to charity if he could get permission to cover Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” His take wasn’t as well received in the jazz world but it certainly makes for a fascinating conversation in its own right. And again, you either love it or don’t like it! Pat Metheny, a jazz musician, wrote an article on it and it went viral. Penny Lane chooses to have this article read by a variety of talking heads on screen. It adds to the flavor that the filmmaker is going for with the documentary.
As the times change, so, too, must Kenny G. Everything is all about social media right now. It’s no longer just about the number of albums or singles that a musician can sell. It’s about staying engaged with the audience. G-d forbid he cut his care because he knows his career will end in an instant.
He hopes to still perform music into his 80s but in the meantime, he would the chance to score a feature film. Could Oscar potentially come calling? I don’t know but time will certainly tell.
Listening to Kenny G is a long overdue documentary that puts the polarizing musician in a new light.
DIRECTOR: Penny Lane
FEATURING: Kenny G (Kenneth Bruce Gorelick)
Listening to Kenny G holds its world premiere during the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival in the TIFF Docs program. HBO will air the film in the fall of 2021.
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Some people are not fans of saxophone and jazz icon Kenny G, and one of his most vocal detractors was Pat Metheny, another jazz icon, whose harsh takedown became one of the most widely read pieces of jazz criticism ever. That exchange is a big moment in director Penny Lane’s latest documentary, “Listening to Kenny G.”
Back in 2000, Metheny famously called out Kenny G for playing out of tune and not knowing advanced scales. But what he really took great exception to was Kenny’s sharing the stage in a “duet” with one of the all-time jazz greats, Louis Armstrong, by overdubbing Armstrong’s icon recording of “What a Wonderful World.”
Speaking with TheWrap’s Sharon Waxman in a video interview at the Toronto International Film festival, Kenny G said he thought it was a joke when he first read Metheny’s critique, and he even tried to extend the olive branch to the jazz guitarist.
Kenny G revisits first music video, ‘Tonight Show’ flap ahead of his new HBO documentary
When some folks randomly hear a Kenny G song in a mall or at a waiting room, they’ll go, “Ugh, not him again.” Not so with Kenny G.
“When I’m in an elevator in like, Wuhan, China, and I hear my music, I go, ‘Wow.’ And then when I’m on the flight to China and they play one of my songs, sometimes I stand up and go, ‘Excuse me, everybody. That’s me! Where’s my royalties, China?’ ” Kenny G quips with a laugh. “I don’t say the last part, by the way. I never say the last part.”
Whatever you think about his ubiquitous mega-hits like “Songbird” and “Silhouette” from the 1980s and ‘90s, Kenny G (real name: Kenny Gorelick) comes off as a fun, self-deprecating guy – who just happens to play a soprano saxophone like nobody else – in the new documentary “Listening to Kenny G,” premiering Saturday night at the Toronto Film Festival.
Director Penny Lane’s film (which airs on HBO and HBO Max Dec. 3) chronicles Kenny’s G journey from a Jewish teenager in his Seattle high school jazz band to one of the best-selling musical artists of all time. But “Listening” also examines why some people love and others despise Kenny G’s works, letting several critics opine on what exactly is so detestable about his “smooth jazz” jams.
Kenny G: It’s really at the top, like some of those things you mentioned, because it’s not something that I ever thought was going to happen. I still can’t really believe that this thing actually saw the light of day. I thought, “OK, they talked about doing this documentary. But as soon as you delve into me, you’re going to go, eh, we don’t need to do this. This is not that interesting.” But all of a sudden it’s done and now we’re in the Toronto Film Festival. It’s pretty amazing. I’m literally stoked about it.
Q: Did any of the critics featured in “Listening” make any points about your music or hit upon something you hadn’t thought about before?
Kenny G: Nope, not one of them, to be honest with you. (Laughs) It doesn’t really matter what they say. I turn my music in and I’ve heard Clive Davis tell me things that he wants different: “Kenny, it needs more snare drum.” And I take it back and I’m thinking, “This is not correct. I’m just going to leave it the way it is, or I’m going to minorly tweak it.” I can do that with Clive Davis, so if there’s a stranger telling me his or her opinion about what I should be doing with my music, that is going to be meaningless to me.
Q: It blew my mind a little bit that your career hinged on you going rogue on “The Tonight Show” in 1986 and playing “Songbird” – which soon after became a huge radio hit – instead of the song you were supposed to perform. How much trouble were you in afterward?
Kenny G: I was screamed at and yelled at and chastised and chewed out like I’ve never been before. (But) before that my manager was sitting in the (green) room and I said to him, “When the curtain goes up, I’m going to play a different song.” He goes, “This is your life. You do what you think is the best thing. Screw everybody else.” So I did my thing and then I got really chewed out over it. And I thought, “OK, I might’ve just blown my whole career. You’re never going to be on TV again.”
Q: In the doc, you say you don’t think you’re a personality to people, you’re a sound. Is there something magical that happens between you and a soprano sax?
Kenny G: Absolutely there is. The first time I played my soprano, I was 17 – still the same soprano, by the way. My goal was to sound like Grover Washington Jr. I play it, my friends in band go, “That doesn’t sound like a soprano sax.” And I go, “I know! Jesus.” And so I keep playing and I can’t make this thing sound like anything other than the way it sounds. It’s always been that different sound and eventually I learned to like it.