February 21, 2024

The music star documentary is by now a medium of documentary film so popular that it has its own name “The Rockumentary”. Like highlights Some kind of monster the chronicle of the production of Metallica’s polarized album St. Anger, instead, like a newer rate Questlove’s Oscar winner Summer of the Soul Highlights the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Music has always provided very interesting ground for deeper study in cinema. However, a recent documentary pulls from an unlikely source and produces incredible depth and observations about the way people consume music. This is Penny Lane’s 2021 documentary Kenny G.


One of HBO’s latest no-shows Music Box documentaries, Kenny G “Smooth Jazz” is a journey through the life and controversies of the pioneering saxophonist Kenny G. The film uses this small (some might say boring) nugget to delve into an analysis of the entire spectrum of music, from criticism, to privilege, to heritage, to cultural exchange. In addition to interrogating Kenny G’s music on a cultural and mechanical level, he succeeds in shedding light on the man and his thoughtful criticism of his music.

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Listening to ‘Kenny G’ makes it fantastic

Kenny G
Image via HBO

When making documentaries, there are two ways to effectively engage the audience, either take a story that is immediately interesting, or take a story that initially seems boring or standard and draw out the unseen depths. At first glance, Kenny G as a musician is not an immediately appealing personality to draw around for a documentary. There was never a scandal (some controversy to be sure), no coke habit that got out of control, no big group split, no big self-destructive spiral. Of course the man was successful, but success is not immediately interesting. The legacy of folk music is full of everyday success stories. However, the documentary does not make a mountain out of a mole hill, it does not pretend that the story it is telling is a tragic operatic masterpiece. Instead, he uses this unexpected foundation to really question the human being and the world around him.

Kenny G is a saxophonist, mostly soprano sax. Interestingly, he’s not a vocalist, he’s entirely an instrumentalist, and none of his most popular songs have any words at all. This is certainly unusual in the field of popular music, but what makes the man particularly interesting is that he was not only very successful despite being an instrumentalist, but that he is debatably responsible for his musical genre, “soft jazz”. Now being responsible for a new genre of music seems like a golden nugget for any documentarian, but the filmmakers are quite clever in their use of it; instead of making a myth, he questions music on a mechanical level and places it in a culture. the context

Kenny G is one of the best features of this documentary

One of the best features of the documentary is Kenny G himself, present in most of the interviews and humble enough to show the filmmakers how the sound is achieved. He brings the filmmakers into his studio and shows off the recording software he uses to give his playing that unique “smooth jazz” sound, even pinpointing the exact places where reverbs, echoes and overtakes come in. It takes something that can easily be removed by hand as the nebulous result of a special talent and reduces the sense of touch, revealing and drawing attention to the man behind the curtain. It makes the fantastic normal again, which is so unique in its genre that it paradoxically makes it interesting again.

This format allows you to ask big questions about why this music is so popular and never gets too hands off with puns, always backed up with hard evidence. Why was Kenny G’s music so popular in the offices and on some radio stations? Because it’s not abrasive to anyone’s ears and the lack of lyrics makes scoring other activities much easier. Why is Kenny G’s music so popular in countries like China? Because the scales he uses (and doesn’t use) in his writing are familiar to country listeners. By being so open to analyzing its music and being in touch with the genre’s history, the documentary can unpack this music and its legacy in a way that no other of its kind even attempts.

Listening to ‘Kenny G’ knows his history

Kenny G Listening to Kenny G
Image via HBO

The film is keenly aware of both the history of “real” traditional jazz and the new smooth jazz created by its focal star, soaking in time and place clips and music videos from the era when Kenny G became famous. Again, it would have been even easier to mythologize this era by referring to some “forgotten” era of real music where stars came out of nowhere, but again the documentary and Kenny G himself bring this era to true reality. Taking an idealized view of what the music industry wanted the audience to see and showing the inner workings behind it. How company heads would pick and choose musicians and producers to sift through different sounds to find one that resonated with audiences. It makes the story of Kenny G’s rise more real because it shows all the chatter about the mistakes and bad advice that preceded the discovery of the sound.

The film further demystifies the creation of smooth jazz, bringing in competent and reasoned critics to interrogate every part of it. The documentary could have easily left these critics out or placed them in pure opposition, but it gives them ample time to explain their doubts about the music. These historians and musicians link smooth jazz to the larger jazz canon to explain why it garners so much disdain from the community. One scholar points out that while traditional jazz is largely composed of a melody that is passed almost “conversationally” to an entire group, Kenny G’s smooth jazz is focused on one person’s cultivated melody.

Stating and highlighting these criticisms in the first place informs a deeper maturity and interrogation of his subject. Admitting that the documentary should be so well crafted by its contemporaries, it sets itself apart from other documentaries that love to mythologize its titanic rise to stardom or meteoric falls.

“Listening to Kenny G” feels honest

One of the usual goals of any documentary is to show the world as it is, to document a certain place, person or period of time. However, the purpose of most movies is also to entertain, and the idea of ​​portraying a completely unbiased reality is quite abstract the second the filmmaker puts someone in front of a camera. With that in mind Kenny G it feels more honest than other documentaries.

A semi-frequent moment in modern documentaries is showing the “setup” of an interview. The initial moments when the director and the interviewee figure out the framing of the scene, often showing what to do with the input of the interview subject, how to represent them and what is appropriate. This footage is usually removed from the finished documentary, unless the director has a particular agenda for certain people. Documentaries will often use this footage to make a particular subject seem trivial, controlling, or otherwise unreliable, for example. Tiger King‘s Portrait of Carol Baskin and LuLaRich‘s portrait of DeAnne Brady and Mark Stidham. The viewer will understand that these people are trying to control their image and everything they say should be taken as unreal.

It’s interesting that this editing trick is only used when Kenny G himself is speaking in the documentary, but it feels less to downplay his character and more to the film’s aims to strip away all pretense and show the man as honestly as possible. The montage of shots, the comment that a moment would be more “iconic” if you were walking around with a saxophone case, the viewer can see much of the inner workings of the documentary. It doesn’t seem like the director is trying to lead the eye to a certain opinion or point of view and more like they are deliberately showing their cards. As he dissects music into its technical parts, he also dissects the very concept of documentary music.

Listening to ‘Kenny G’ balances criticism with heart

One of the things that sets the documentary apart from others of its kind is its ability to critique its main subject, but it’s also embedded with a love of music that makes Kenny G’s relentless disdain of critics feel like there’s more meaning behind it. him When the scholars who bring the film delve into Kenny G and his music, it’s always marked with a love of traditional jazz and a kind of protectiveness and direct anger that his fame transcends the genre they love. This is reflected when the filmmakers are interviewing Kenny G, the man has been absurdly successful, but it’s clear when he talks about his music and music in general that there is still a deep love and appreciation for all that has come before. It gives the film a completely different atmosphere than other cases, both sides approach the issue with good intentions, and both sides want people to appreciate their love of music.

One of the most famous and controversial events Kenny G ever participated in was his “duet” with the late jazz legend. Louis Armstrong. Kenny G played a recording of Louis Armstrong singing What a wonderful world while playing the accompaniment on the saxophone. The vitriolic response in the music critic community was immediate. However, when Kenny G himself is able to explain his concept for the duet and what inspired him to attempt it, it feels more like a conversation than a lead answer. He believed that Kenny G only wanted to pay tribute to the singer himself, while others believed that the performance was a “desecration” of the “sacred” work of Louis Armstrong. The film gives both sides ample space to explain their positions, and in the end both feel like they have their points, treating the audience with enough respect to make up their own minds.

It is this touch with the analytical attitude of the big issues and the big fields of music criticism that makes the documentary so enlightening, even if you know nothing about Kenny G, or even if you don’t care about jazz or smooth jazz for that matter. matter Like any good documentary, it absorbs the audience and gives them insight into a subject they don’t care about, and because it does so in a smart (and humorous) way, the viewer may find themselves learning and thinking about things they may never have. thought before With a balanced and balanced approach to topics, it forces the audience to think critically about how they think about music and what they might love or hate.

When a documentary challenges you to think like this, it has more power than others of its kind. It proves that even in a seemingly “safe” genre like smooth jazz, there are always deeper meanings to be explored, and that even in people like Kenny G there are interesting stories to tell.

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