November 12, 2023
by Carla Hay
Directed by Matthew Heineman
Culture Representation: Taking place in 2022, this documentary film of jazz/pop musician Jon Batiste features him, his wife Suleika Jaouad, and a racially diverse group of people (African American, white and a few Asians) as he prepares to do a one-night-only “American Symphony” show at New York City’s Carnegie Hall while experiencing difficulties in his personal life.
Culture Clash: At the time that Batiste was experiencing some career highs (including winning five Grammys that year), Jaouad was battling cancer, which came back after years of being in remission.
Culture Audience: “American Symphony” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Batiste and movies about couples or family members dealing with health challenges.
“American Symphony” is a documentary about love on many different levels in telling the story of musician Jon Batiste and his writer wife Suleika Jaouad during her cancer journey. There are no real surprises but the movie is a bittersweet celebration of life. “American Symphony” is also a musical treat for people who appreciate Batiste’s unique artistry. He also composed the score for this documentary. “American Symphony” had its world premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival.
Directed by Matthew Heineman, “American Symphony” (which was filmed in 2022) features voiceover narration from Batiste and Jaouad, indicating that this is as much a documentary about her as it is about him. Batiste just happens to be more famous than his wife, but it’s clear from watching the film that they treat each other as respected equals. Batiste and Jaouad have been a couple since 2014. Their 2022 wedding ceremony is shown in “American Symphony.”
In 2011, Jaouad was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and chronicled her cancer journey in The New York Times column/vlog “Life, Interrupted,” which won an Emmy Award. Batiste is an Oscar-winning composer (for Disney/Pixar’s “Soul”) and was the bad leader/music director for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” from 2015 to 2022. In 2022, he was nominated for 11 Grammys and won five Grammys, including Album of the Year for “We Are.” That same year, he also did a one-night-only show “American Symphony” concert at Carnegie Hall, with the show featuring his original music that reworks classical and jazz.
The documentary shows that at the same time Batiste is experiencing these career highs, Jaouad’s cancer has returned. The day that Batiste found out that he was nominated for 11 Grammys was the same day that Jaouad had to begin chemotherapy. Later, she had to get a bone marrow transplant. “American Symphony” shows how Batiste and Jaouad experience emotional lows that are raw and intense. However, the documentary is a testament to inner strength and the power of a loving support system.
“American Symphony” is also Batiste’s personal reflection of what music has meant to him in his life and how he had to stay true to himself, when other people were telling him to change so he could “fit in” better at the places where he wanted to be. Born in 1986 and raised in the New Orleans area, Batista goes back to his alma mater of Juilliard, which he describes as very “European classical,” not a “black Southern thing.”
The bond that this loving couple has is joyful to behold. Batiste says of Jaouad: “I learn from her all the time to look into the darkness and despair and to face it—but you can’t let it consume you.” Jaouad comments that what she admires Batiste’s ability to deal with life’s extremes: “I actually don’t know how to hold such extremes.”
“American Symphony” juxtaposes dreamy-like scenes of Batiste relaxing in nature (there are multiple shots of him in ocean water) with the stark and harsh realities of hospital visits with Jaouad. Batiste’s “American Symphony” concert is a rousing and emotionally moving conclusion that expresses many of the emotions that he poured into writing this symphony. People who watch this memorable documentary will appreciate its message that life is a symphony whose music and lyrics are still being written.
Netflix will release “American Symphony” in select U.S. cinemas on November 24, 2023. Netflix will premiere the movie on November 29, 2023.