The profile doc is a tough form to navigate. They so often come off as little more than hagiography, hitting life highlights of public figures in a manner that does little to humanize them. The truth is that no documentarian is going to dedicate the time to make a profile doc without interest in the subject, but that interest can often lead to placing people on pedestals in a manner that just doesn’t lead to insightful filmmaking. Two of the best profile docs of the year premiered at TIFF and they work because of how carefully their talented filmmakers avoid the standard traps of the genre. A third film will work more for the fans, even if its subject surprisingly disagrees.
Penny Lane introduced her surprising “Listening to Kenny G” by asking, “Why should we care about other people’s taste in music?” More than a mere biography of one of the most famous and divisive jazz musicians of all time, the great Lane uses Kenny G to unpack how passionate we can get about musical taste. We get defensive when someone doesn’t like a musician who has changed our lives and we get aggressive when we feel someone like Kenny G is dismantling an art form we love (just ask Pat Metheny). At its best, Lane’s film directly asks why we put so much into our favorite (and least favorite) music, while also serving as something of image rehabilitation for Kenny himself, revealing him as someone incredibly dedicated to his craft, even if he is also radically unconcerned with some of the stronger criticisms lobbed at him.
Lane spends most of her film interviewing Kenny G himself, detailing his remarkable rise in the ‘80s and ‘90s to become one of the highest-selling musicians of all time. He’s likable, humorous, and revealing, but also feels like he’s very much in control of his image. He’s regularly repeating his mantras of constant practice—he reports to still do so three hours a day—and there’s a funny feeling watching his interviews that reflects his music in that "comfortable" way. It’s almost an “Easy Listening Interview,” which I don’t think is accidental on Lane’s part. It also makes Kenny G’s music feel more like a natural product of its creator instead of the carefully crafted money machine that some have accused it of being.
Lane counters the kindness to Mr. G. with jazz experts and critics who have spent a great deal of time detailing their reactions to the superstar. One calls Kenny G, “Part of the musical furniture of American culture,” and that’s on the nicer side. And yet even some of these people come around to recognizing the role that Kenny G has played in the world—one of the crazier bits involves how the artist’s “Going Home” has basically become the theme song of the end of the workday in China. A cool piece of trivia or proof that Kenny G is the tool of crushing regimes? You decide.
As Kenny G gets deeper into the kind of mash-ups that created his controversial collaboration with Louis Armstrong, and allows his ego to emerge more fully (such as in a bit about how he could easily win an Oscar for Best Original Song if a filmmaker would just hire him), he started to lose me a bit. And I liked that. I like that even Lane seems a bit skeptical of Kenny at times by the end, but she still captures how much he means to people. After all, there needs to be some musical furniture out there.
A very different portrait of a man emerges in Liz Garbus’ National Geographic doc “Becoming Cousteau,” a film that sometimes feels less ambitious than her best work but that I found remarkably soothing and even comforting. There are men out there fighting to keep this world from falling apart, and “Becoming Cousteau” is a reminder of how people can use passion to make change. We could use more men like Jacques Cousteau.
The world-famous explorer is chronicled in a film that’s made up entirely of archival footage—always a choice that I admire. We don’t need to see talking heads. We hear from a few of them in archival audio and modern sound bites about the life of Cousteau, which is captured in ways that haven’t really been seen before. For one, I never appreciated the technological advancements and courage of Cousteau’s work. Deep-sea diving wasn’t what it is today when he started exploring the deep. The first person to try on an aqualung on a test day with Cousteau died. He was taking serious risks.
And he wasn’t just an explorer or a scientist, he was a filmmaker. Cousteau understood the power of the image, saying that he wanted to be the “John Ford or John Huston of the ocean.” I was having a very stressful, emotional day when I watched “Becoming Cousteau,” and I found it calming. Maybe it was the commitment of its subject and its filmmaker, but it was probably also something of what Cousteau saw in the deep: a gorgeous escape from the problems of the earth.
Jacques would eventually come around from just seeing the beauty of the oceans to realizing that conveying that beauty could help save them. He has an incredible line about how passion can impact change: “You’ll only protect what you love.” He taught people to love the planet. Anything that can remind us of that love in 2021 is valuable.
Finally, there’s Alison Klayman’s profile of Alanis Morissette in “Jagged,” a film that lacks the ambition of the best music docs by focusing almost solely on the remarkable ascendancy of its superstar during the production and release of Jagged Little Pill, one of the best-selling albums of all time. Hearing Morissette discuss her life in an open manner has entertainment value—Klayman is clearly a gifted interviewer and gets great material from collaborators and colleagues like Taylor Hawkins and Shirley Manson too—but “Jagged” ultimately feels a little shallow for an album that really dug down to the bone.
Klayman’s approach is incredibly committed to Morissette’s work. She will regularly let live performances of songs from Jagged Little Pill play out, complete with lyrics put on the screen. The result is a reminder of the power of the album itself more than a profile of its creator (although, of course, the two are intertwined). Still, I wished for a bit more analysis and insight instead of replaying songs and discussing their production. And so I was stunned to read this week that Morissette herself has disowned the film as “salacious.” She does open up a bit about her horrifying experiences with sexual predators in the industry, but it’s not a word I would think anyone would associate with “Jagged.”
Alanis Morissette rules and it does feel like the critical industry has forgotten that too much. Her impact can be heard throughout music today (and I wish the film had worked that idea more too) and if “Jagged” serves as a reminder of a powerhouse moment in music culture, then it has some value. I have to say that “All I Really Want” has been in my head all week.