American Symphony


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

American Symphony
"Batiste and Jaouad are intensely grounded – they have to be – and as such, their humour and their joy have greater weight."

When Matthew Heineman set out to make American Symphony, he thought he was going to be making a documentary about music. He was, indeed, following a musician, the celebrated fusion artist Jon Batiste, and doing so at a critical point in his career, when he was preparing for a performance in Carnegie Hall. The story became much more complicated, however, when Batiste’s partner, the writer Suleika Jaouad. became seriously ill, changing everything in their already hectic lives.

The thing about music that makes it so powerful, Batiste says, is its predictability – that sense that what happens is what was always supposed to happen. One might note that this makes it the polar opposite of life with leukaemia (acute myeloid in Jaouad’s case, though that isn’t specified here) when life-threatening crises can develop within hours. As he continues to work, travelling to do audio research, developing his team, adjusting his compositions or practising, they are both aware of the precarity of the situation.

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Following the two of them over the course of several months, during which Jaouad undergoes a second bone marrow transplant – a procedure so risky and damaging that it is usually offered only once in a lifetime – the film interweaves these themes as Heineman explores who they are separately and together. Its impact on you is likely to depend in large part on how you relate to the couple’s situation and relationship, which has been hyped up by the film’s promoters as if such a thing had never been heard of before, but is much more interesting where it is approached in a more low key fashion.

Jaouad has a strong voice in the film. The author of Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir Of Life Interrupted, and a sometime New York Times contributor, she has a skill in framing her story which sometimes threatens to overwhelm Batiste’s, and there’s a shy streak to him which exacerbates this, in spite of the clarity with which he expresses himself through music. The film is respectful towards them throughout, which is commendable, but viewers who don’t know very much about her illness will go away still not knowing very much about it, and despite Batiste’s effort to explain his ideas, the same could be said of his musical process.

Where the film does well is in its examination of the stresses of fame in the context of having additional problems to deal with. Fans of Batiste’s will not be in the least surprised to hear that the film deals with him receiving awards, and with criticism related to that, some of which is really spiteful. It has been said that nothing before the word ‘but’ really counts, so try the words 'I mean no disrespect...’ on for size. Nobody really talks about race, but the predominant skin tone of the critics is hard to overlook, and whilst one can understand the desire to see new people winning things, what Batiste is doing is new, again and again. A collage of pre-existing ideas, perhaps, but what music isn’t? Lacking the emotional armour that many famous people acquire, he is visibly wounded by their remarks.

Clearly in love with the process of creation, Batiste appears to have little room for ego. He doesn’t put on a show for the camera, but his intelligence comes through clearly, as does his insight. The film, however, focuses on the contrast between expectation and the inescapable realities of life. Batiste and Jaouad are intensely grounded – they have to be – and as such, their humour and their joy have greater weight. Heineman keeps the camera close, capturing these moments of ordinary magic which are more precious for it. They have had their fill of drama and, as one can hear when the symphony finally begins to play, they just want to live.

Reviewed on: 18 Feb 2024
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American Symphony packshot
In 2022, musician Jon Batiste finds himself the most celebrated artist of the year and embarks on composing an original symphony. The year grows more complicated when his life partner, best-selling author Suleika Jaouad, learns that her long-dormant cancer has returned.

Director: Matthew Heineman

Starring: Jon Batiste, Suleika Jaouad

Year: 2023

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: US


DOC NYC 2023

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