G turns, and pauses a beat.
“Uh… Underappreciated, in general.”
From these first 10 seconds of Lane’s new documentary about the saxophonist — and the startling backlashes he’s provoked throughout his 40-year career — you know you’re in for a revisionist joyride that’s one of the most entertaining nonfiction efforts in recent years. With Lane’s laughter, just off-camera, to G’s response, it’s apparent right away this won’t be an objective biographical account, her subject held at some artificial remove, but instead, like Lane’s other films (“Nuts!,” “Hail Satan?”), an impressionist reverie of how the material before you makes you feel.
And Kenny G’s music has inspired a lot of feelings indeed. For his fans — and there are many, as the 52.4 million records he’s certified to have sold testify, putting him ahead of Bob Seger, Bob Marley, Kiss, and Aretha Franklin in sales — his music is moving and inspirational, whether providing the soundtrack to office work or walking down the aisle. To his detractors, he’s a usurper to the legacy of jazz, an artistically bankrupt hack who only has his sales going for him. Lane — whose collage-like sensibilities in “Our Nixon” and “The Pain of Others,” and exhaustive research skills, always result in the artful presentation of found footage — shows clips of radio hosts decrying G, and even one angry youth appearing to blast a G album with an AR-15.
Indeed, G is as much an heir to the legacy of “Disco Demolition Night” in the rancor he provokes as he is to any specific jazz tradition. But part of what makes “Listening to Kenny G” so fascinating is how it shows that there really hasn’t been much critical thought applied toward G at all, only lizard-brain reactions. There is no Kenny G biographer to call upon as a talking head and probably never will be. The commentators who are here alternate between not knowing at all what to say or rattling off their own obviously pre-scripted talking points that aim not to generate discussion so much as shut it down.
The New York Times’ Ben Ratliff suggests he first heard G’s music while waiting around at the dentist’s office or at a bank and “associated it with a corporate attempt at soothing my nerves.” PopMatters’ Will Layman says, much like Wynton Marsalis in other documentaries, that jazz is a conversation, where one performer exists in dialogue with another. Therefore G, whose solos float like a bath toy on top of a bubbly bed of musical water, isn’t engaging in discourse at all: “It isn’t sex, it’s masturbation.”
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