Kenny G’s curly locks, acid-tongued critics get double billing in new documentary

“Listening to Kenny G” is the opening feature Wednesday night at SF Indiefest’s new music-themed festival Decibels.

Listening to Kenny G. Credit: SF IndieFest

The folks at SF Indiefest are always busy: When not running their namesake San Francisco Independent Film Festival, their time is occupied with more specialized events such as Docfest, the Green Film Festival, and the delightfully monikered Another Hole in the Head. Apparently unwilling to rest on their laurels, SF Indiefest has recently added Decibels — a cinematic celebration of all things musical — to the menu; its inaugural edition runs online and via limited in-person screenings from Wednesday, Oct. 27, through Nov. 7.

Opening night feature Listening to Kenny G is the latest film from director Penny Lane, whose films Nuts! and Hail Satan? previously tickled your humble scribe’s fancy. You probably don’t need me to tell you who Kenny G is, but in the unlikely event you’re unfamiliar with his oeuvre, Lane’s film will quickly bring you up to speed.

Seattle-born jazz enthusiast Kenny Gorelick fell in love with the music of saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr. in high school and has spent the subsequent five decades emulating it. Listening to Kenny G documents the sax man’s initial miscasting as a pop star, his adoption by Arista Records bigwig Clive Davis, and his rocket to fame via the ubiquitous dental office hit Songbird, which single-handedly created the “smooth jazz” genre still plaguing our airwaves.

Lane includes plenty of footage of disdainful critics (“I’m sure I heard a lot of Kenny G while waiting for something” says one, while another wonders whether his music is “a corporate attempt to soothe my nerves”), but the film revolves around contemporaneous interviews with the man himself, who still wears his trademark curly locks and has no regrets about his career choices, which have made him very wealthy indeed. Love him, hate him, or grudgingly admire him, you’ll be thoroughly entertained by Listening to Kenny G. Perhaps you’ll even be inspired to get that root canal you’ve been putting off!

Even better is I’m An Electric Lampshade, an apparent blend of fiction and documentary about New York accountant Doug McCorkle’s post-retirement career in electronic dance music. Yes, you read that right: this softly spoken 60-something hung up his spreadsheets a few years back and traveled to the Philippines, where he learned to dance and perform, was hired to appear in a yogurt commercial, and became the unlikeliest of EDM stars.

I have no idea which parts of I’m An Electric Lampshade were staged (maybe all of them?), but it ultimately doesn’t matter: Director John Clayton Doyle’s film is a pungent reminder of the boundless possibilities of cinema. Eschewing the stale conventions of three-act narrative storytelling, talking head-driven documentaries, and impenetrable arthouse cinema, Lampshade is the best film I’ve seen so far this year. After watching it, you’ll be in nirvana … or darn close.

Also noteworthy: Vinyl Nation, a thorough (and thoroughly enjoyable) examination of the 21st century resurgence of records and record collecting; French Kiss Goes to Oulo, a droll and warm-hearted look at a middle-aged Frenchman participating in the World Air Guitar Championships in Finland; and Come On Time, in which English ex-pat songwriter Clive Kennedy struggles to overcome performance anxiety.

Passing Through. Credit: Pacific Film Archive

By happy coincidence, the recently re-opened Pacific Film Archive has another musical treat on offer at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 31. 1977’s Passing Through was the culmination of film student Larry Clark’s time at UCLA Film School. A pointed examination of the importance of jazz music in African American culture and its appropriation by white record company execs, the film features the great Clarence Muse’s penultimate screen performance, while Julie Dash and Charles Burnett both contributed behind the camera. Impressive credentials for a student film!

John Seal has lived in Oakland since 1981 and has been writing for Berkeleyside since 2009. He spends his spare time watching and reading about movies.