TIFF ’21: “Jagged,” “Listening to Kenny G” directors talk music docs

Alison Klayman, director of the Alanis Morissette film Jagged, and Penny Lane, director of Listening to Kenny G, convened virtually with Toronto International Film Festival doc programmer Thom Powers Sunday (Sept. ...
September 15, 2021

Alison Klayman, director of the Alanis Morissette film Jagged, and Penny Lane, director of Listening to Kenny G, convened virtually with Toronto International Film Festival doc programmer Thom Powers Sunday (Sept. 12) to discuss the flourishing genre of music documentaries.

In the microsession “Documenting Celebrities,” the filmmakers — whose TIFF-premiering docs form part of Bill Simmons’ recently announced HBO strand ‘Music Box’ — delved into the creative process and how they navigated the added scrutiny.

Klayman, whose works include Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, 11/8/16, The Brink, a documentary following Steve Bannon, and Take Your Pills, called Jagged “a great breath of fresh air.”

“We all felt so passionate about Alanis’s story and how great the music was and how great the archival was,” she said.

Lane, meanwhile, wasn’t initially interested in making a music documentary.

“It’s a tough form in a lot of ways because you have all the problems of a biographical film, which are legion, and you’re adding onto that the very complicated puzzle of the music rights situation, which I knew would be very challenging and it was. And you’re also trying to deal with the art,” Lane, whose other films include Our Nixon, Nuts, The Pain of Others and Hail Satan?, told Powers.

Jagged sees Morissette reflect on her 1990s rise to rock stardom when “Jagged Little Pill” topped international charts in 1995, while Listening to Kenny G takes a look at the saxophonist’s story while asking: what makes music good or bad?

Klayman said her experiences of working with public figures has varied.

“It was really helpful that [for] this project, they had already had some conversation with her management, her willingness to do it. I wasn’t the cold call,” she said. “It was all about, ‘Who’s the filmmaker going to be?’

“I don’t like to share or talk about what I think a film is. Usually because I don’t have it fully formed [and] because I want there to be some element of discovery along the way for me…. With her I sort of shared a brief paragraph of how I saw it and it was the theme of feminism, patriarchy.”

The filmmaker said, when working with a public figure, it’s important to be able to navigate the world around that celebrity.

“I don’t feel like it’s my job to reach into every nook and cranny of a person and expose it, to crack them open in that way,” Klayman told Powers. “Eventually they are going to see the movie and you’re not trying to pull a fast one on anyone. It’s like having this delicate balance.”

In the lead up to the film’s debut on Tuesday (Sept. 14), however, Morissette announced she would not be in attendance.

Yesterday, in a statement first published in the Los Angeles Times and provided to multiple outlets, the musician said: “I was lulled into a false sense of security and their salacious agenda became apparent immediately upon my seeing the first cut of the film. This is when I knew our visions were in fact painfully diverged. This was not the story I agreed to tell. I sit here now experiencing the full impact of having trusted someone who did not warrant being trusted. I have chosen not to attend any event around this movie for two reasons: one is that I am on tour right now. The other is that, not unlike many ‘stories’ and unauthorized biographies out there over the years, this one includes implications and facts that are simply not true. while there is beauty and some elements of accuracy in this/my story to be sure — I ultimately won’t be supporting someone else’s reductive take on a story much too nuanced for them to ever grasp or tell.”

HBO and Klayman did not respond to requests for comment from Realscreen.

For Lane, Listening to Kenny G was her first brush with documenting a celebrity.

“I went into it expecting a lot more machinery. But there was nothing like that… There wasn’t a sense that his time was at a premium at all,” she said.

Lane explained that  for any documentary, filmmakers can encounter friction with their subject, particularly when the project transitions into the edit phase.

“You go into the edit and you gradually turn your attention from them and toward your audience,” she  said.

“There’s a scene in the film where a side of [Kenny G's] personality that is, let’s say, less charming comes across pretty clearly, and he saw that accurately and he didn’t like it very much. He didn’t have any editorial control but, contractually, he had the right to see it and give me notes and his feedback, which I didn’t have to take, but you care about people… He did his best to lobby to take it out and I didn’t and we had to come to terms with that.”

Navigating archive and music licensing is another challenge for the genre.

“It was my first time dealing with this and it was very frustrating,” Lane said. “It became such an unknown factor because you have to edit the movie, making choices without knowing if those choices are going to be feasible, and there’s inevitably this period of time where many lawyers get involved and the licensing starts happening.

“Many people perhaps wonder why there’s not more music in music documentaries and I’ll tell you, it’s because we can’t afford it. It’s very expensive… I learned a lot about this constraint and I think I’ll be able to approach it smarter next time.”

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