Music documentary American Symphony covers Jon Batiste during trying times
Singer/musician Jon Batiste has a boundlessly infectious personality, whether at concerts, on stage at the Grammy Awards, or in his former role as bandleader on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
And as a new documentary American Symphony demonstrates, his ability to stay upbeat in spite of enormous recent personal struggles is nothing short of remarkable.
The film, directed by Matthew Heineman, follows Batiste in 2021 and 2022, years that would prove to be of great consequence. In those two years, Batiste would win both a Grammy and an Oscar for his work on the Disney/Pixar film, Soul; win Album of the Year at the Grammys for his fifth album, We Are; and prepare to debut his work, American Symphony, at Carnegie Hall in New York.
At the same time, his partner (and soon-to-be wife) Suleika Jaouad had a recurrence of leukemia after being in remission for 10 years. As if to underscore the wildly fluctuating emotions with which Batiste was dealing, the day that he was nominated for 11 Grammys also happened to be Jaouad’s first day of chemotherapy, a head-spinning turn of events that few could deal with adequately.
The film tracks Batiste as he goes back-and-forth between the important things that demand his time, while also giving a primer on the musician’s career for those who may not be familiar with him. The result is a portrait of a man that both underscores his musical brilliance and gives a glimpse behind the curtain of how people going through a cancer battle deal with the toughness of the disease and treatment.
Heineman attempts to give Jaouad her own time in the film, highlighting her own accomplishments as a musician, writer, and budding painter. Through no fault of her own, though, the overwhelming nature of the cancer and Batiste’s exploding career push her to the background. The love story between the two of them is strong and clear, but most of the feelings are felt through the perspective of Batiste.
Jaouad says to Batiste at one point, “I feel like we’re living a life of contrasts,” and the film is all about the juxtaposition between their two lives, again mostly by showing Batiste’s two lives. One day he’s giving an exuberant performance and winning the top award at the Grammys, and the next he’s back in Jaouad’s hospital room, where she stayed for five weeks.
The multiple stressors in his life take their toll, with Batiste confessing to panic attacks and taking time to talk regularly on the phone with a therapist and practice breathing techniques. At one concert, Batiste dedicates a song to her and pauses for a long time before starting, clearly having a big emotional moment.
Still, because of Batiste’s natural personality and the love he and Jaouad have for each other, the film never becomes a depressing watch. Instead, it inspires with his artistry – typified by the title symphony, which brings together disparate elements for a unique experience – and a relationship that appears to have the ability to weather many storms.
American Symphony blends together two stories that could each warrant their own showcase, but it becomes something richer by demonstrating how they – and the two people at the film’s center – complement each other. Batiste’s music has the power to touch your soul, but this film indicates he has much more to offer than just that.
American Symphony is now streaming on Netflix.