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Interview: A Conversation with Penny Lane and Kenny G on ‘Listening to Kenny G’

Releasing on HBO Max this weekend, audiences will be treated to one of the most enjoyable films of the year in Penny Lane’s Listening to Kenny G. A documentary about the popular yet divisive jazz musician, it charts his rise to fame as he reinterpreted jazz on his own terms, revealing new perspectives on the man behind the music. While the film made its premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, Awards Radar chatted with Kenny G and director Penny Lane for a relaxed conversation that exemplifies Kenny G’s easy-going approach to life, art and his ardent critics. Below is an edited transcript of that discussion.

Shane Slater: I was quite fascinated by how you frame the film from the perspective of the backlash towards Kenny G, which I wasn’t aware of growing up in the Caribbean. What was your relationship to Kenny G’s music?

Penny Lane: First of all, I’m so glad you said that because I was trying to show that in the film. There’s a particular, very small number of people who don’t like Kenny’s music, in a very aggressive way. There are people who like it and just don’t think about it very much. But there are a few people who have that kind of anger about it. And it is mostly American. It’s nowhere else in the world. I mean, Kenny’s beloved everywhere.

Kenny G: That’s why I’m here in Canada! [Laughs].

PL: And I’ll say, the only big downside to the fact that this film was made during COVID was, we didn’t get to tour with him much. And we really were looking forward to it. There was a big Asian tour.

I was a teenager in the 90s. So my people were punk, hardcore riot girl.

KG: Did you ever listen to my music?

PL: Not on purpose! [Laughs]. The music was everywhere and I didn’t have any particular opinion about it. It was like a fish in water. When you come of age, the music that you love that’s around you, and the music that you don’t like is very important to your identity in some kind of way. I think probably if I weren’t the age I am, I maybe wouldn’t have thought of Kenny as the subject of a documentary. But for me, he’s like a huge part of the world.

SS: What was your initial response to doing this documentary? Were you reluctant at all?

KG: Not at all. We had lunch together. You know, the only thing that I had a little bit of trepidation for was she’s vegan. So I thought, “I don’t know. I’m not sure about this.” How can we actually go out and enjoy ourselves? [Laughs]. Honestly, I’m just flattered by the thought that somebody wanted to do this. So I was completely on board.

SS: You mentioned in the film that everywhere you go, people just want you to play and you can’t really cut your hair. How has your relationship to fame changed, especially with the advent of social media?

KG: Honestly, I’ve gotten used to it. When I first became well-known, you feel people’s eyes on you all the time. I got used to it, and then I just kind of embraced it and just know that that’s just the way it is. So a lot of times, when I go back to Seattle, I’ll hang out with my high school friends. And we’ll go out and then when we’re out, people will come up to me. Then my high school friends are not used to any of that.

For me, I’ve seen it for decades. So I take it all in stride. And I just feel like it’s just part of what happens. I was just walking the streets in Toronto, I went to get my COVID test to make sure I’m good and on the way, people are taking pictures or stopping. And it just seems normal. But I don’t take it for granted.

I don’t let it go to my head, that’s my point. When they come up to me, it doesn’t make me think that I’m a really big, superstar important person. That’s just a normal thing that happens to me. And that’s how I do it and try to be nice to everybody.

SS: The question of authenticity comes up a lot in the film. Is there anything you would do differently, looking back on your career?

KG: I probably would have played a few different notes. [Laughs]. Some of the solos that I played, I can play that better now. But that’s it.

PL: I mean, there’s stuff you did that you didn’t love and knew you were going to be embarrassed by. But you did it because you were having a career.

KG: You can’t have it both ways, that’s the problem. If you’re going to sign up with Clive Davis and Arista records, you know we’re a team. So when Clive says, “I want you to do a vocal song, and have Aaron Neville sing it and have Diane Warren write a song.” It’s like, to me, it’s just better as an instrumental. But for Clive it’s, “No, Kenny, we need to do that.”

Honestly, they just wanted a bunch of both vocal songs at first because there was no outlet for instrumental music. So when they’re looking at me, they’re thinking, “Okay, how do we make this guy successful?” Well, let’s get vocal songs together, let’s get airplay on radio. And somehow, the consumer will buy it because of the vocal songs, which he doesn’t sing anyway. And then they’ll discover he’s an instrumentalist and they’ll like him, and we’ll introduce him that way. Fortunately, I won. But that’s only because of “Songbird”.

PL: I thought that was really cool. I really appreciated getting to know Kenny as an artist and relating to him, because I’m an artist. I want to work, I want to have a career, you know? I don’t want to just be alone in my house and not have a career and call that authentic. That doesn’t make any sense to me. So being an artist in the world means you’re constantly negotiating how to express yourself and be authentic within constraints. There are constraints in the world, you can’t just do everything you want. There are projects that I want to make that I can’t sell. Guess what? I don’t make them.

SS: You’ve also made films about Nixon and Satanists. What draws you to these controversial figures?

PL: I think you just said it. It’s the controversy. You want to have something to sink your teeth into into. I want to be challenged, I want to challenge my audience. But I always try to do it with smile, because that’s how I am as a person. If I’m talking to you, I’m not going to be afraid to challenge a position you might take in a conversation, but I’m going to be smiling when you do it. So I feel like my films are very like me. It’s easier to get people to open up and to consider, or maybe reconsider, something they thought they already knew or were sure about if they’re feeling relaxed. And laughing and smiling is a way to relax. So controversy, but also a potential for humor.

SS: Through the making of this documentary was there anything particularly surprising, or any particular revelation for either of you?

KG: Well, I saw some of the old footage and I didn’t even recognize myself. And I thought, “Yay, I was actually pretty cool back then.” [Laughs]. But for me, I was really proud of the fact that Penny showed a lot of things that happened backstage. I really love that, because the audience doesn’t see it. Not just the audience at the show, just people in general, that maybe like my music. They don’t see all of the things that we do. Sometimes I’d love people to see that after the show, on the road. It’s all done, I’ve got to pack up, I’ve got to lug all my saxophones onto the bus, stick them up there. And then I go back into this little cubby hole in the back of the bus. Then the bus drives for like 12 hours, and you have to try to sleep while the bus is going. And you do that and then wake up and then do everything again the next day. People have no idea.

You wouldn’t think this is such a glamorous life, if you knew where I was right now. Even though an hour ago, I was on stage. But right now, I’m in my underwear in the back of the bus.

PL: I think for me, there’s a scene in the film where Kenny makes a decision as a young artist at Arista Records. He makes a decision that’s very rebellious and it really makes his whole career. And I think that to me, just starting out without any knowledge of Kenny or who he was as a person, and how he came to be “Kenny G, international superstar,” I don’t think I would have thought that all started with an act of rebellion. All that happened because he refused to let go of the idea that he had something to say as an artist and made it happen and kept trying to make it happen. Again, within the constraints of being a working artist and having a record deal and having to play ball and being on a show. Yes, but he did this rebellious act.

I think not only did it launch his career, but it shows what kind of person he is, you know? He’s not just like a corporate automaton who is trying to make easy listening music so that he can be rich. As he says in the film,”If only I were that smart.” There’s a naive idea that people have, that that’s how art gets made. Like, there are just people who know what will sell and they just try to engineer it. And sure, they do try to engineer it, but it doesn’t always work.

KG: It doesn’t work very often. Not if you’re not the author of it. If you’re the author of it, it usually works. When you try to copy that format, it doesn’t work for anything.

For the full audio of this conversation, click below:

Listening to Kenny G is now playing on HBO/HBO MAX.

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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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