Review: American Symphony


This raw, intimate documentary reveals the most creative, versatile and eclectic musician of our time, Jon Batiste. From exposure to his personality on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” I was expecting a laid-back, fun, light-hearted guy. But his story runs more like a Shakespearean hero, gifted, but tortured by the ebb and flow of the winds of fate.

Initially, “American Symphony” began as a video simply to document some things going on in Batiste’s life. He had no original intention of making a commercial film. Now, it has earned an Academy Award nomination for best original song and the documentary is spear-heading a campaign for blood stem cell transplants.

With the hiring of Matthew Heineman, award-winning documentarian extraordinaire, “American Symphony” evolved from documenting the creation of Batiste’s first symphony to a gripping film on a life suddenly and dangerously beset by events beyond his control. Through nine months, from December 2021 to September 2022, Batiste is ambushed with six life-altering events amidst a home renovation, concert dates and weekday performances on Colbert’s show.

The first crisis ominously lands in December 2021, when long-time partner, Suleika Jaouad, New York Times best-selling author, is diagnosed with a recurrence of acute myeloid leukemia. The best option is a bone marrow transplant at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. That is scheduled for February, the day before what turns out to be their impromptu marriage ceremony.

Implicit in “American Symphony,” executive produced by Michelle and Barack Obama, is a double (or is it sextuple) entendre. The very nature of an American like Batiste is diverse, complex, conflicted and active. The symphony here can allude to the multiple roles he plays simultaneously. While he must be done creating and rehearsing his symphony by September, he also wants to be with Suleika in the hospital, where she has the risky transplant, pain, setbacks and an emergency second hospitalization.

Then there are the 11 nominations for the Grammys. The yin and the yang, in extremis, port at his door. Now, he must perform at The Grammys in April.

So it is such a relief when we see him hidden under sheets and pillows talking to his therapist. He has not been able to sleep for three days. He is needed in too many places at once. He is anxious. He has panic attacks. He doesn’t feel like doing anything but he does it anyway, saying, “I’ve been doing that for many years in my life. Some days you just want to stop the train. On the other hand, this is the train you are on right now.”

Batiste talks about the press of it all, the stakes of representing his race and culture and following through on the potential that has been gifted to him while also tending to his essential needs and commitments. Suleika is obviously his foundational rock of calmness, but she is fighting a battle for her life. He reads his Bible.

Heineman takes us through it all, reaching a crescendo with a crisis at Carnegie Hall.

Transcending the film is the decision Batiste, Jaouad and Heineman made to form a campaign to make services, like those that save Jaouad’s life, more available. Barack Obama explains: “Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and NMDPsm are working together to help more patients get access to life-saving blood stem cell transplants. Make an impact by joining the ‘American Symphony: Become a Lifesaver’ campaign. Together, we can give hope to patients in need.” (Obama)

“American Symphony” is a testament to resilience that compels Batiste to fight through a six-tailed dragon of crises with a driven focus. The story, the editing and the music combine to raise this film to American art at its best.

Rating: 10/10


Director: Matthew Heineman
Producers: Matthew Heineman, Lauren Domino and Jordan Okum
Executive Producers: Jon Batiste, Steven Farneth, David Fialkow, Nina Fialkow, Suleika Jaouad, Barak Moffitt, Barack and Michelle Obama, Marc Robinson, Daniel Seliger and Alice Webb
Featuring: Jon Batiste and Suleika Jaouad
Cinematography: Tony Hardman, Matthew Heineman and Thorsten Thielow
Editors: Sammy Dane, Matthew Heineman, Jim Hession and Fernando Villegas
Music: Jon Batiste
Release: Nov. 29, 2023
How to see: Netflix

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