Smooth jazz saxophonist Kenny G is one of the best-selling musicians of all time. He is also a near-total joke among musical tastemakers. Early in the documentary Listening to Kenny G, one critic describes his output as being part of “the musical furniture of American culture” — a simple yet devastating dismissal that I’ve been unable to shake from my head since hearing it. But director Penny Lane decides to take the Kenny G phenomenon completely seriously, and this film is a rigorous investigation into his life, work, and history. The fascinating paradox of Kenny G is that, while Lane uncovers multiple layers to his place in music, she can’t seem to crack the enigma of the man himself. Nor would I say that by the end we are any closer to answering the question “How the fuck is this guy just wailing on a sax so popular?”

But that’s fine. If this mystery were solvable, it wouldn’t be so compelling. And Lane finds plenty of fun in all the errant strands of the cultural web connected to the man. Did you know, for instance, that Kenny G set a world record for holding a single note for the longest time? (For 45 minutes!) Or that in China, his song “Going Home” has become an unofficial anthem of sorts because so many businesses play it to signal that they’ll soon be closing for the day? Clearly the man has skill, and something about his music speaks to people, even if no one can satisfactorily articulate just what that is. The expected conventions of a biographical doc — talking heads, archival footage, etc. — take on an inquisitorial spin. Lane emphasizes a behind-the-scenes feeling with interviews with people like a Chinese music historian, and includes distant shots of Kenny G just riffing and practicing.

From Listening to Kenny G

At the center is the man himself, genially and openly talking to the camera about his past and his process. And what Lane sees is … someone exceedingly ordinary. Kenny G practices strenuously but otherwise appears completely unpretentious, humble about his wealth and status, and thoughtful but not terribly insightful about his art. It almost seems as if popularity can’t be adequately explained because, at a certain point, it can simply perpetuate itself.

This is the kind of material Lane is adept at exploring; she’s previously delved into unusual subjects mostly dismissed for mainstream critical inquiry in documentaries like Nuts! (2016, about a notorious huckster), The Pain of Others (2018, about “sufferers” of Morgellons), and Hail Satan? (2019, about the Satanic Temple). Listening to Kenny G is part of the first season of HBO’s Music Box, a new documentary anthology. Other installments cover more conventionally critically lauded musicians like Alanis Morissette and DMX, but none have quite the magnetism of this less conventional biography.

YouTube video

Listening to Kenny G is available to stream on HBO Max.

Dan Schindel is a freelance writer and copy editor living in Brooklyn, and a former associate editor at Hyperallergic. His portfolio and links are here.