At the close of each year, we poll members of the Realscreen team to find out what non-fiction and unscripted programming drew them in, and this year is no exception. To kick off our look at what we loved to watch in 2021, we hear first from senior staff writer Justin Anderson.
Penny Lane’s Listening to Kenny G is a fun and engaging documentary that felt almost tailor-made for me — not because I love Kenny G (I honestly have no strong feelings one way or another) but rather, a feature-length exploration of the question “what makes art good or bad?” could not be more in my wheelhouse.
Documentaries about pop culture are very much my jam, and Listening to Kenny G is an excellent one. It’s about subjectivity in art, which could easily be a heady subject, but by tying it to Kenny G, someone who has been incredibly successful for decades while also being seen by many as a punchline pretty much the entire time, Lane makes it a fun and easy watch without sacrificing her themes.
The film is funny and insightful while also touching, however briefly, on issues like white privilege. In one scene, we watch as a rich and successful white man reckons with his own privilege in real time and it’s one of the most fascinating things I’ve seen in a documentary in a while, a truly genuine moment. As a subject, Kenny G was more engaging and self-aware than I had expected, but he was also naïve enough that I honestly believed he’d never really considered his place as a white man succeeding at a traditionally Black art until Lane asked him about it on camera.
For her part, Lane also deserves credit for not taking the easy way out and simply casting the light jazz icon as a figure of ridicule. As someone who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, I can tell you how easy that would have been. To be fair, the film does have a lot of fun with the seemingly guileless musician, but it never comes across as mean-spirited. Instead, Lane actually tries to get at the person under that signature mop of curls, and while your mileage may vary on how successful she is getting to “the real Kenny G,” it’s a tremendously entertaining effort.