THE STORY – Explores a year in the life of musician Jon Batiste.
THE CAST – Jon Batiste & Suleika Jaouad
THE TEAM – Matthew Heineman (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 100 Minutes
Director Matthew Heineman has developed a fairly prolific career in the documentary world over the last decade. Often steeping himself and his crews in dangerous environments, Heineman has a unique talent for dredging up the humanity in the stories he highlights, no matter how harrowing the locale. “Cartel Land,” nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, followed vigilante groups fighting the cartel in Mexico. In “City of Ghosts,” Heineman embedded with an activist group in Syria as ISIS took over and decimated their homes. He documented the harrowing up close and personal toll COVID-19 took on people’s lives at the start of the pandemic in “The First Wave.” Just last year, Heineman chronicled the final months of America’s war in Afghanistan, up until the horrifying final days as troops pulled out of the country with “Retrograde.” His latest documentary about musician Jon Batiste, “American Symphony,” may seem like a strange fit, lacking in physical danger or international geopolitics. Perhaps that’s precisely why the director took on the project. “American Symphony” is a study in contrasts, much like Heineman taking on a story so vastly different from the rest of his milieu. The film covers just a brief period of Batiste’s life, less than two years marked by distinct highs contrasting with painful lows.
Though “American Symphony” follows Batiste for a short while, the film recaps the momentous rise and stunning accomplishments he’d garnered by 2021. Hailing from a musical dynasty in New Orleans, Batiste rose quickly in the music scene, eventually attending the Julliard School. He founded the group Stay Human with some fellow Julliard musicians and gained fame for their incredible street performances. Energetic videos from this era of Batiste’s rise really capture his uniqueness as an artist, even before breaking through at a national or global level. Eventually, in 2015, he landed his biggest gig yet: bandleader for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” alongside Stay Human.
“American Symphony” picks up with Batiste in 2022, a year after winning an Academy Award for Best Original Score for “Soul” (shared with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) and releasing his critically acclaimed album, “We Are.” In many ways, Batiste is at the peak of his career, yet this period of his life is marked by personal tragedy and stress. His partner, author Suleika Jaouad, faced a relapse of her rare form of leukemia, necessitating a bone marrow transplant. Balancing the success of his album, his job on “The Late Show,” and caring for Jaouad weighs on him, all while embarking on a challenging new endeavor: writing a new symphony blending musical styles for Carnegie Hall.
Heineman’s access to Batiste and Jaouad throughout this time is remarkably intimate. The camera accompanies them in the hospital before and after Jaouad’s transplant. Batiste’s phone therapy sessions help us see the turmoil and stress that’s bearing down on him as he tries to hold everything together. It’s a moving portrait of a profound artist confronting the heights of success alongside his wife’s pain. The film often cuts between Batiste winning Grammys or experimenting with new sounds to him lying in a hospital bed with Jaouad. It’s jarring to see what’s so often hidden behind success.
While the film’s last act loses a bit of steam in focusing primarily on Batiste’s symphony, it’s no less amazing to see brilliance in action. With his symphony, Batiste aims to expand the canon of classical music, weaving together various genres such as jazz, blues, gospel, and more. It’s tough to separate that from earlier moments in the film when he becomes aggravated at articles complaining about the variety of musical genres he was nominated in at the Grammys. He’s an artist that’s difficult to categorize, making his process fascinating.
Countless documentaries have chronicled musicians at all levels of the industry over the years. It’s the contrast of personal and professional stresses that makes “American Symphony” so powerful. At one point in the film, Batiste even questions the extreme level of success he’s encountering and fears it might break him. He wonders, “If I keep rising up higher, am I gonna crack?” As a fly on the wall throughout these moments, “American Symphony” shows Batiste’s brilliance remains, even amid tragedy.