Jon Batiste and Suleika Jaouad lead us through one of the most heartbreaking, but heartwarming and inspiring, documentaries on Netflix right now, American Symphony.
Movie: American Symphony
Release date: November 29
Director: Matthew Heineman
Stars: Jon Batiste and Suleika Jaouad
Runtime: 143 minutes
What is 'American Symphony' about?
On the same 2021 day that Batiste was nominated for 11 Grammy awards, his then-partner (now wife) Jaouad started chemo after learning that her leukemia returned following an initial diagnosis a decade earlier.
Moving forward to 2022, when American Symphony begins, Batiste is in the process of crafting his "American Symphony" piece, with the goal of showcasing what a modern day symphony orchestra would play, blending classical musicians with other musicals artists, including Indigenous, jazz, blues, gospel and folk musicians. It's set to be performed in a one-night-only experience at New York's Carnegie Hall.
While Batiste is facing impressive success, having held the position of band leader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert since 2015, going on to win five Grammy awards, including Album of the Year for We Are, Jaouad will have her second bone marrow transplant for what she describes as a "last resort option" after 10 years of remission.
American Symphony is a beautifully crafted exploration of both Batiste making his mark on the music industry, while simultaneously exploring this love story between him and Jaouad, and what it's like to navigate success and creativity while facing such extreme high and lows.
"I honestly don’t know how to hold such extremes," Jaouad says in the documentary.
Why 'American Symphony' is one of our favourite documentaries of the year
Simply put, American Symphony is a magnificent love story, both in displaying the love between Batiste and Jaouad, but also in exploring the love they both have for their own creative pursuits.
Heineman is wonderfully able to balance all the different elements of Batiste and Jaouad's story, a lofty goal as we see Batiste travelling for performances, and of course the Grammy Awards, while Jaouad undergoes her cancer treatment.
But throughout the film there's this beautiful balance of joy, hope, courage and agony in the whirlwind of the story, depicting the honest complexity of life, when massive achievements also come at a time of significant struggle.
Batiste is of course a musical genius, a virtuoso, and watching him work to construct "American Symphony" is a fascinating pleasure. But the documentary also shows Batiste process the sort of backlash from some in the classical music community after he was nominated for a Grammy in the Classical genre. Many classified him as specifically a "pop" musician. It's Batiste's ability, desire and commitment to breaking down those traditional constructs that makes his "American Symphony" piece so revolutionary.
For Jaouad, an incredibly talented writer and the author of a famed 2021 memoir Between Two Kingdoms, when her medication started impacting her vision, she had to turn to a different creative outlet, which led her to painting. Throughout American Symphony, we see her paint at home and in the hospital, as her form of expression throughout her cancer treatment. In one moment, Jaouad says she's painting giraffes in her hospital bed because it's the only activity that's preventing her from crying.
American Symphony is also filled with sweet moments of the couple skipping down the hospital hallway together, Batiste's excitement about Jaouad's paintings and Jaouad's excitement about Batiste's award wins.
The documentary feels beautifully delicate in this whirlwind time in the couple's life. It's a gift that we've been given a glimpse into the love story.