Penny Lane: Can 75 Million Kenny G Fans Be Wrong?

The HBO documentary Listening to Kenny G brilliantly explores the gulf between market success and critical acclaim.


With apologies to Elvis Presley: Can 75 million Kenny G fans be wrong to love the man who inspired the "smooth jazz" genre? That's the question at the heart of the brilliant new HBO documentary, Listening to Kenny G.

Best known for such instrumental hits as "Songbird" and "Silhouette," the saxophonist formerly known as Kenneth Gorelick has sold 75 million records since the 1980s and has recently enjoyed new fame by collaborating with such artists as Kanye West and the Weeknd. Yet one constant throughout his career has been the incredible amount of bile that jazz artists and critics have spewed his way.

Listening To Kenny G is, director Penny Lane tells Nick Gillespie, "an exploration of why Kenny G is the most popular and successful and best-selling instrumentalist of all time and why that success makes a certain subset of people like really mad." It's by turns funny and deep as jazz critics rail against the title character, who seems to take everything in stride.

Lane also talks about her previous documentaries, including Our Nixon (2013) and Hail Satan? (2019; watch a Reason interview about it here), why Errol Morris is her guiding light as a nonfiction filmmaker, and what she likes about Reason, which she started reading in college. "Society," she explains, "needs people who are annoying, who stand outside and say, yeah, but what about this? You know? I've always identified with that kind of personality."