American Symphony Review

American Symphony
A documentary tracking a year in the life of husband and wife Jon Batiste and Suleika Jaouad. While Batiste reaches new heights in his musical career, winning awards and writing a new symphony, the couple share the trauma of Jaouad’s leukaemia returning.

by John Nugent |
Published on

“What we love about music is not that it sounds good,” says musician Jon Batiste in voiceover at the start of American Symphony. “What we love about music is that it sounds inevitable.” It’s a surprisingly reflective, philosophical take from a man perhaps best known as the former band leader on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. On that show he was mostly a presence of giddy joy, serenading audiences four nights a week with his melodica, his heady gumbo of musical influences, and his infectious New Orleans energy. In real life, as this film seems to show, there’s more going on under the surface.

American Symphony

Director Matthew Heineman — who did remarkable work with City Of Ghosts and Cartel Land — has made a captivating film that tries to explore the inner life of both Batiste and his partner-turned-wife, Suleika Jaouad. The pair met each other as teenagers at band camp and their shared creativity seems to drive them through thick and thin; Jaouad was diagnosed with leukaemia aged 22, and when we meet them in the film it has recurred, forcing a brutal bout in hospital while she undergoes a bone marrow transplant.

It’s fascinating to watch his creative process, Heineman’s camera fixed in a close-up as Batiste figures out his melodies

Their response to such a horrific, inexplicable injustice is fascinating. “We both see survival as its own kind of creative act,” explains Jaouad, and both of them use artistic expression to digest the trauma of the experience. Jaouad writes, with a New York Times column and book documenting her experiences; when her eyesight begins to falter due to heavy medication, she turns to painting.

Batiste, meanwhile, juggles an ascendant career — sweeping up a historic five Grammys in 2021, including album of the year — with the stresses and worries of his family life, and ponders how to live a strange double existence. His response is to make an ‘American Symphony’, one that acts a kind of metaphor for America, a broad church of backgrounds and genres. It’s fascinating to watch his creative process, Heineman’s camera fixed in a close-up as Batiste figures out his melodies, his face seemingly wrestling with the music. Some gorgeous grainy cinematography matches the subject’s rich texture.

The film concludes with the premiere of American Symphony at Carnegie Hall, and it sounds beautiful — something like George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, truly avant-garde and thrillingly new. At one point, there seems to be a power-cut in the venue and Batiste improvises a beautiful piano piece on the spot. Whether planned or not, it’s a perfect metaphor for the creativity in adversity that Batiste and Jaouad have made their personal mission. Whether it truly gets under their skin is perhaps in the eye of the beholder, but it’s a documentary that feels crafted, with care and intention.

Moving and musical, this is a striking portrait of courage and creativity in the face of some horrific odds chucked at you by life’s lottery.
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