TIFF 2021 Interview: Penny Lane on Exploring the Rougher Edges Around the Popularity of Smooth Jazz in “Listening to Kenny G”

In doing her due diligence for “Listening to Kenny G,” Penny Lane had come across a remarkable fact about the saxophonist whose song “Coming Home” had become so popular in China, it was adopted across the country as anthem of sorts to be played at the end of the work day. Unfortunately with travel restrictions being what they’ve been during the pandemic, the filmmaker couldn’t go there herself to see if this was true, but had the ability to dispatch a team of local filmmakers to collect the footage to send back.

“I was like, “Is it really that widespread? Has it been overstated?” Lane recalls, assigning a second unit to go to malls and factories. “And then my crew was like, ‘Here’s 50 scenes of the song playing that we got today.’ It was really pretty mind-blowing to get evidence of it in that way.”

That stuck a phenomenon exists and only Lane would think to look is indicative of what drew the filmmaker to make a film about the massively popular yet critically reviled musician in the first place, with fans of his quite literally seeking out easy listening while detractors attack him for his lack of depth. As it turns out, there’s a whole lot more there, although it’s unlikely “Listening to Kenny G” will add to your appreciation of his music, but rather appreciating what he represents when Lane can take a surreal scene like the one in China and consider what it says culturally when his music has gained such traction there after New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff mentions the feeling of oppression he gets every time he hears the smooth jazz Kenny G was credited with pioneering, though as the Chinese Musicians’ Association’s Yin Zi Yuan explains the real reason is as simple as the melodies the artist embraces, aligning well with Asian music traditions.

Lane learns Kenny G himself isn’t one to give much thought to these things — he prefers talking about golf, one of his many other pursuits, where the results are less subjective — but “Listening to Kenny G” shows someone who deserves far more consideration than either blithe dismissal or benign acceptance. Being the first to tell you that hard work is the key to his success rather than any natural talent for being a musician, the saxophonist who still practices three hours a day has discipline and shrewd business instincts as guiding forces for his career instead of any lofty creative goals may not ingratiate himself with those that believe art comes from passion, yet in undeniably striking a chord with milquetoast hits such as “Songbird,” the enduring power of his music as the inoffensive sonic wallpaper for offices and waiting rooms the world over may say a lot more about us than him.

Still, he has plenty of interest to say about himself as Lane gets him to detail a career in which he was pursued by Arista chief Clive Davis when instrumental acts were a novelty at best, presented in silhouette on his first two singles so Black audiences, thought to be the primary consumers of jazz, would embrace him (an irony when many would later accuse him of cultural appropriation), and pioneering an entirely new radio format with smooth jazz, which could be seen as a gateway to the grander artform, though to what end critics might ask when that curiosity for most didn’t seem to go very far. In typical fashion for the one-of-a-kind auteur, Lane makes “Listening to Kenny G” as delightful as it is provocative, with countless memes-in-the-making cropping up as the “Hail Satan?” director takes the longview even before she hops aboard his prop plane for a flight around his birthplace in the Pacific Northwest. (He’s a licensed aviator, wouldn’t you know.)

As the film premieres at the Toronto Film Festival en route to the Camden Film Festival next week and eventually on HBO as part of Music Box, the impressive series of music docs spearheaded by “30 for 30” mastermind Bill Simmons, Lane graciously took the time to talk about taking on a type of film well outside of her typical interests, having a subject game for her unique approach and forging a connection over a mutual artistic pursuit, no matter how different that may look to them individually.

So did Kenny G come first or was Kenny G a vessel for some ideas you were already having?

I feel like the answer will not surprise you. Kenny G initially was a vessel for ideas that I already had been kicking around for years about the deep and problematic snobbery and elitism that is endemic in the world of… it sounds horrible to say, but cultural elites [or] people who think that their tastes are better than other people’s, and the world [tends to] agree with them most of the time. And when Bill Simmons asked me to pitch him a music documentary for his series for HBO, initially, I was like, “Yeah, I don’t know. Music documentaries are a pretty, pretty tough form.” I don’t tend to watch them, and when I do, it doesn’t tend to blow my mind. The problem is they’re usually quite conflict-free and the attempts to come up with conflict are usually psychodrama, like some sort of inner turmoil, which is fine, but it’s just not interesting to me.

I was looking for a subject with conflict — that was my first criteria. And when it comes to music, what came to mind was just how deeply and intentionally felt our opinions about music are — emotional, tied to our identity, and our sense of social belonging, so Kenny G was a name that came up for me as a vessel for that idea and then when I met Kenny, getting to know him and his particular story and his particular personality became at least as much of the film as exploring the conflict.

Did anything surprise you when you met him?

Yeah, he’s very sweet and funny, and just a really nice person. I think I was surprised. This is my first time making a celebrity movie, and I had avoided that my whole career because of the perception of what that would be like, like a constant power struggle and having to deal with the machinery around the celebrity. There was none of that [here]. It was just me and Kenny — it’s funny. Earlier today, someone introduced him as the subject of film and he said, “Oh, I thought I was the star of the film.” And I was like, “Oh, sorry. Welcome to documentary. We don’t have stars. We only have subjects.” [laughs] But it didn’t feel substantially different than doing a film with any other subject.

One of the moments I love most in the film is when you keep the camera rolling during a break in the sit-downs and he asks how the interview’s going, which ends up speaking to who he is in the way the interview itself couldn’t. Still, when the presumption is you’re going through the motions of a more traditional biography, is it difficult to reconcile what you wanted versus the demands of what the subject had in mind?

Yeah, because I think if the film is unsuccessful, it’s because I was maybe trying to do too many things. I had this big set of ideas that I wanted to explore and those weren’t going anywhere, but as I got more into it, I was like, “Well, it would be negligent to not also tell Kenny’s story and represent who this person is, where it came from, and how he thinks about art and himself in the world,” so it became a big challenge in the edit to balance those two [sides]. There’s the argumentative part of the structure, and then there’s the story of his career, and I do think that that was a big challenge, trying to find the right balance.

Honestly, after the first couple of days of shooting with Kenny, I was like, “Oh, we could have just made a character-driven piece with just him.” He was so charismatic and so fascinating, and I knew so many of his personality traits and ideas would be so provocative to my audience, but I was just like, “Oh, we could’ve just gone this way,” but then we had to find a way to balance it out with the original ideas.

Given how rigorously researched your films usually are where the material is largely archival, could you still start out there? Was the process of laying out the foundation any different?

With Kenny, it was not an archive-driven project, and it’s funny, because like “Hail Satan?” people don’t necessarily pick up on it because it’s the archival is so contemporary, but the archival did come first with “Hail Satan?” but the archival is YouTube videos — local news stories, so that was actually a very archive-based project, but people think I was there filming more than I was. I knew that this was driven by this idea of a conflict about what makes art good or bad, so the archive was only instrumental in the beginning in telling me that he was a fun, funny person who has a sense of humor and might be game for a project like this — and I think very, very few artists would be game for a project like this [where the premise is] “I’m going to use you and your music, and your career as a vessel for this conflict.” That’s probably a great sell for a lot of people. But from looking at the archival I could tell that he can laugh at himself a little bit, which is a rare thing, I find, with artists. We take ourselves very seriously. [laughs]

James Gardiner, who knew Kenny as he was coming into his own in the Pacific Northwest, seems like a crucial figure from both a biographical and analytical standpoint. What was it like talking to him?

It was amazing because it was at that point in the process, he was really one of the first people I interviewed who actually knew Kenny. A lot of the people I was interviewing were the music critics and they had a lot of interesting things to say about his music in a cultural context, but they really didn’t know anything about him. So meeting James corroborated Kenny’s telling of his own coming of age story in a way that was super interesting and that was useful for me. This was not just myth-making. This was a shared experience of his early years, so that was really fun.

Also just getting to know Jim, he was so proud of the impact he had made as an educator and it was really moving to me and I thought that part of the story should be highlighted because we don’t spend enough time acknowledging the people who help us along the way and get us to where we’re going, so on a personal level, I wanted to give his influence on Kenny its due.

Did this take you in any directions you weren’t expecting, but you could get excited about?

It was really just getting to know Kenny as an artist. I mean, I don’t even know that it ever occurred to me before I started what his ideas about art were and how he negotiated his career, especially the early part at Arista. We put a lot of effort into this part of the film where he’s really negotiating how to be authentic and express what he wanted to express as an artist, and not just do what the record label wanted of him. That was revelatory for me and it was just like talking to any other artist who is trying to negotiate those demands. In a commercial construct, you want to be a working artist. You want to have a career. You want to play gigs, and have records and have the support of your record label, so learning about that part of his career was really surprising, and I thought really important to include because it helped me relate to him more, artist to artist.

This may come organically at this point, but I couldn’t help but marvel at how time and again in the film you could so seamlessly start out with something ridiculous such as when Kanye West asks him to serenade Kim Kardashian for Valentine’s Day and it grows into a far more serious point – in that case, how contemporary artists are picking up on his work as he once did a generation before. Was that as difficult to structure as I imagine?

It was difficult, yes, and I feel like this film was really fun to shoot, no problems, all joy, all fun all the time. Then in the edit, it was actually really hard because you could do so many different things, and do them better, and give them more time. That’s always how I feel at the end of my films — I want to make a snappy and entertaining film and I want to be engaging, and fun, and keep things going. I don’t want to make a three-hour movie about Kenny G, even though that’d be funny. [laughs] But I also always feel like, “Oh, there’s so much more to say about all of this.” You just hope that people walk out and if they’re complaining at the end, it’s because they wanted more. But there’s always so much more to say. There’s so much more to say about the elitism of music critics. There’s so much more to say about the functions of music in our lives. There’s so much more to say about instrumental music and how it was that this unicorn of a person became an international superstar when no one else had ever done that as an instrumentalist. You could say the stuff about race and cultural appropriation is its own topic and could be its own film. There’s so many more to say about all of it. That ultimately becomes the difficulty in the edit is just balancing it all, trying to get everything its correct weight.

After I imagine you’ve heard “Songbird” more times than anyone other than Kenny G has ever had to, what’s it like getting to the finish line?

I’m so happy to be at Toronto with this film. It’s such a dream come true and I couldn’t imagine a better launching pad, also not taking for granted the fact that we’re able to do this in person, as weird as it is and the venue will be half-empty. It’s all going to be great. I’m so excited. And as a side note, my editor sent me a video today from his dentist office where “Songbird” was playing when he was lying in the dentist chair, so that made me laugh.

“Listening to Kenny G” will screen at the Toronto Film Festival in person on September 12th at 6 pm at the Scotiabank Theatre and available virtually on September 12th at 5 pm EST and September 18th at 3 pm EST across Canada. It will next play at the Camden Film Festival on September 17th at the Camden Opera House at 5:30 pm and September 18th at 9 pm at the Shotwell Drive-In and will air later on HBO as part of the Music Box series.