Penny Lane on music, “bad” art and “Listening to Kenny G”

Taste in music is a subjective thing, and as much as there are artists who are seemingly universally hailed as geniuses for their talents and contributions to culture as a whole, liking or not liking a musician or group generally isn’t a very controversial stance.

In her new film Listening to Kenny G, director Penny Lane (Hail Satan?) dives into the idea via her subject from the other end by looking at a popular critical punching bag in the form of the smooth jazz musician.

Lane’s film acts both as a traditional biographical documentary about a hugely popular musician who’s been at the top of his profession for decades as well as an exploration of what it means to make — and for millions of fans worldwide, to enjoy — what has been labelled by others as “bad” art.

The film explores the other side of the concept of the universally hailed musical genius: the widely maligned but incredible popular artist (no other artist has sold as many instrumental albums as Kenny G) that critics and scores of music lovers like to take a poke at. Listening to Kenny G tackles the subject with a deft touch and sense of humor.

“In the beginning, what I knew and was fascinated by was his unique place in culture: here is someone who has achieved a level of success and global ubiquity unknown to any other instrumental artist, but whose music – especially in its heyday in the 1990s – inspired a deep disdain, resentment and even sometimes hatred amongst the intellectual, critical, artistic class to which I belong,” Lane tells Realscreen. “I had a hunch that this conflict would be interesting to explore in a film.”

penny_lane_headshot_2018_small (3)The film is part of the Music Box strand of music documentaries from HBO and Ringer Films, along with fellow TIFF selection Jagged, which, like Listening to Kenny G, is slated to air on HBO later this fall.

Listening to Kenny G is a Ringer Films production, in association with Spinning Nancy, with Ringer founder Bill Simmons executive producing, along with Jody Gerson and Marc Cimino. Gabriel Sedgwick is the producer, with Nancy Abraham and Lisa Heller executive producing for HBO and Tina Nguyen as senior producer for HBO. HBO is distributing in the U.S., with WarnerMedia Domestic Television Distribution acting as U.S. sales agent and WarnerMedia International Television Distribution handling international sales.

The 46th Toronto International Film Festival runs through Sept. 18.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity

Why Kenny G? What is it about Kenny and his story that drew you to this project?

An important piece of background on me is that I was an art professor for over a decade, and thus had cause and opportunity to discuss how we define and judge art on a nearly constant basis. The puzzle of explaining to students that on the one hand, there is no really objective criteria by which to define and judge art, and on the other hand, I will in fact be grading them, created constant and delicious friction in my own mind. One can’t solve a problem like that! One can only continue to find new ways to work through it, and crucially, this is best accomplished in dialogue with people with whom you strenuously disagree.

Was this planned as part of the Music Box series for HBO from the start?

Bill Simmons asked me to pitch him ideas for the series. I wasn’t sure that I could make a good music documentary  — I think it’s a tough format to do well — but I loved Bill, I wanted to work with him, and I felt he was starting with all the right principles to inform the series. So I said I’d give it some thought. I had a few ideas, but the idea of using Kenny G as a case study in the debate about what makes music good or bad, and who gets to decide that, struck me as just a killer idea. I felt I could nail the tone, that it would be super funny but also challenging and provocative and important. Luckily for me, Bill got the vision right away, and working with the whole team at Ringer Films and HBO Documentary Films was pretty much my dream scenario, because they generally had really great notes that solved problems for me, while also being super respectful of the idea that you gotta let the director direct.

Art being considered “good” or “bad” is a big part of the film. What about Kenny G in particular made him seem like a good way to explore that?

Well, one thing was that before I even approached Kenny, I had done enough research to see he isn’t afraid to laugh at himself and he is not much bothered by the people who hate his music. He is very solid in who he is, and very happy with himself and his music, and I didn’t think a project like this would, like, crush his soul or drive him to depression or anything. I knew he could take it, and I had a hunch he’d be game for a project like this, and to my delight, he was.

I think the other thing was that I was a teenager during the 1990s, when Kenny was truly at the height of his international superstardom and was inspiring the kind of critical disdain I wanted to explore. I was starting out with a pretty strong grasp on the specific moment in the music industry and mass culture that produced Kenny G. If I had chosen, I don’t know, Liberace or something from before my own lifetime, I’d have had a lot more uphill work to do to get to a place of expertise.

What’s the experience like for a creative person to make a documentary about an artist and their art? 

I loved it, really. It was easy to relate to Kenny on certain aspects of his work and career, specifically the complex dance an artist had to do with gatekeepers and the public if one wants to actually have a career. I’ve always felt there is no right answer to that puzzle, either, any more so than there is to the puzzle of other people’s taste.

The more challenging aspect of this was that I knew absolutely nothing about jazz, its history and form. So I had to rely on not only my experts to place Kenny’s place in that world, but also my producer Gabriel Sedgwick, who is a musician himself as well as a huge jazz nerd.

One of the criticisms against Kenny G is about appropriating Black music to find success that many Black artists don’t experience. What was it like approaching that issue within the film?

It’s an important historical reality that I knew needed to be acknowledged. There are a lot of issues inside that issue  — the idea of commercial success, the idea of who owns jazz, the idea of systemic racism in the music industry, the idea of who is speaking for and about whom in critical discourse… All of these issues intersect in a thousand different ways. My concern was that the film should present as much of this as I could, with the nuance, as well as the passion, it deserves. In terms of asking Kenny to directly confront this issue, I brought it up in a few different ways over the years we spent together, but the moment from Kenny’s interview I chose to use in the film was one where I saw Kenny changing and expanding his perspective, in real time, right in front of me. It’s the kind of moment you live for as an interviewer.

All that said, if someone thinks the film doesn’t go enough into that topic, all I can say is they’re right. I hope it’s true that there’s always more to say about everything I put in all my films. My vision is that I’m laying out a delicious feast of conversation topics for the audience, and it’s up to them to decide what they’re going to take up and continue to talk about with their friends afterwards. The best thing I can hear from audiences is that they continued to think about and debate ideas from my films for much longer than the time they spent watching the film itself!

Listening to Kenny G premiered at TIFF on Sept. 11, and next screens Saturday (Sept. 18).

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