Listening to Kenny G

TIFF 2021: Listening To Kenny G Review

Is it smooth jazz or "wallpaper music"?

He’s the best-selling instrumentalist of all-time and now Kenny G finds himself the subject of a new documentary at TIFF, Listening To Kenny G.

Part of HBO’s Music Box documentary series, Penny Lane’s film takes an oft-light-hearted look at Kenny Gorelick and his polarizing saxophone, while asking the broader question of “what makes music good?”

Birthing the genre of “smooth jazz”, there’s no denying the “Songbird” star musician still captivates audiences whose diversity in terms of age, race, and background is astounding. There’s just something about his music that appeals to a broad range of people. Lane includes engaging subject experts who try to explain not just his enduring popularity but the continuing cold shoulder he gets from the jazz world. Jazz experts, radio DJs, record exec Clive Davis, and academics all try to put their finger on what Kenny himself calls “wallpaper music”. “I don’t think I’m a personality to people, I think I’m a sound,” Kenny says.

After watching Listening To Kenny G, I’m not quite sure audiences will get a better sense of the man behind the sax. From his time on screen, we get to know a man who is precise and very careful about his image. His asides to the director are kept in – should he wear a sweater? Or is a buttoned up shirt fine? – and his editing of single notes in his studio recording sessions give us a sense of his perfectionist ways.

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While Kenny G is a fascinating subject who has proven time and again he can take a joke, the doc stops short of giving true insight into who he is as a person. More fully explored here is the harshness of jazz critics who can be accused of “gatekeeping” to keep people like Kenny G out of jazz circles despite his musicianship. But that seems to be fine for Kenny G, who reveals he doesn’t really care for old jazz standards anyway.

No matter where one might sit on the Kenny G divide, Listening To Kenny G is often a fun, nostalgia-driven ride that may just leave viewers with a new appreciation for the saxophone.

Listening To Kenny G has both digital and in-person screenings during TIFF. A release date on HBO has not yet been announced.

Follow along for our latest coverage including reviews, interviews and more, live from TIFF and join in on the conversation on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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