(Check out Chris Reed’s American Symphony documentary movie review. The doc drops on Netflix Wednesday, November 29, 2023. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)
Multihyphenate musical artist Jon Batiste sits atop his professional field, having won 5 Grammys in 2022, including for “Album of the Year” and “Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media” (the latter for Soul, for which he also won an Academy Award). He followed that triumph with the premiere, on September 22 of that same year, of his first symphony, entitled “American Symphony,” at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Director Matthew Heineman (City of Ghosts) follows Batiste as he composes that work in his eponymously titled documentary American Symphony. In and of itself, such a narrative would no doubt fascinate, but Heineman also gives us so much more.
For Batiste’s longtime romantic partner (and, as of 2022, wife), author Suleika Jaouad, has leukemia. First diagnosed at 22, she discovers, at the start of the above-mentioned year of achievements, that her 10 years of remission are over and that she requires a second bone-marrow transplant. For the both of them, it makes Batiste’s success bittersweet, despite their joy at all that goes right.
Heineman, as always, brings us into close proximity to his subjects. The intimate camera reveals moments of pain, sorrow, and happiness, tears flowing freely but laughter also equally present. This vicarious experience deepens our understanding of Batiste’s hard work and well-earned approbation, as well as of Jaouad’s magnificent strength and resilience.
It can be tough to watch at times, however, given where Heineman trains his lens, whether it be in the home or the hospital. Seeing Jaouad undergo chemotherapy, receive less than hopeful news in a doctor’s meeting, or suffer the aftereffects of treatment, is beyond moving. And despite Batiste and Jaouad’s obvious consent to be filmed, we often feel as if we’re violating their privacy.
Still these mixed emotions only heighten our involvement, cutting back and forth from those fraught sequences to Batiste’s composition and rehearsal process. And then there is the actual Grammy ceremony, very much a part of the movie. Batiste sings and dances his heart out, especially during his live performance of his song “Freedom.” When we then later witness his Carnegie Hall debut for a work written in a much more classical mode (with plenty of other influences), we gain an even broader sense of his talent.
The film contextualizes all of this in a robust retrospective of Batiste and Jaouad’s lives and careers, including how they met and what initially brought them together (she is also musical, having trained on the double bass). From New Orleans originally, Batiste would receive his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Juilliard School, exploring a vast number of musical traditions while there, as well as forming his ensemble Stay Human, a group he would bring with him when he became late-night talk show host Stephen Colbert’s bandleader. He just turned 37 on November 11, 2023. What a life!
And what a love between spouses. Though the briskness of the movie and the slickness of the editing sometimes leave us wanting more, overall American Symphony offers a poignant portrait of a couple, made up of two striking individuals, building a meaningful life together through thick and thin, ecstasy and tragedy. A round of sustained applause, please.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)
Netflix; Matthew Heineman; American Symphony documentary movie review