A celebration of art, resilience and the mutability of the human spirit, Matthew Heineman’s American Symphony never feels like it’s quite the documentary that its director originally intended it to be. Nor does it tell the story that featured star Jon Batiste presumably hoped for it to chronicle. But it’s all the more joyful and emotionally resonant for those deviations.
American Symphony is a concert film, a love story and, if you’re prone to embracing metaphors — and it’s right there in the title — as strangely patriotic a tale as you’ll ever hope to see: a snapshot of America’s protean emergence from the COVID pandemic, as the country charged forward despite trauma.
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Beginning in early 2022, American Symphony finds Batiste at a crossroads.
Still best known as the bandleader on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Batiste has an exploding career, with 11 Grammy nominations and a scheduled one-night stand at Carnegie Hall to present the so-called “American Symphony” — a yet-to-be-completed composition that aspires to nothing less than the revision and diversification of the symphonic form.
It’s easy to watch parts of American Symphony and see traces of a documentary meant to show the evolution of Batiste’s piece, which he expects will be a mélange of regional and cultural musical traditions — simultaneously a checklist of forms and sounds left out of the stodgy canon and a Petri dish for enthusiastic improvisation. He’s assembling a symphonic team, traveling the country as both a sonic collector and, on a purely practical level, to capitalize on burgeoning celebrity.
But that’s not what American Symphony ends up being, because Batiste’s longtime partner Suleika Jaouad — a writer and musician in her own right — learns that, after a decade in remission, her cancer has returned. Facing a second bone marrow transplant and a return to chemo, the author of the New York Times column “Life, Interrupted” has to contemplate this new interruption just as the world’s everyday life looked to be returning to normal.
Jaouad’s diagnosis upends the happy couple’s life and bifurcates Heineman’s documentary, which might otherwise have simply built to that Carnegie Hall performance or to Grammy night 2022. Instead, the documentary becomes a story of emotional highs and lows, often experienced simultaneously. Doctor appointments become as important as symphonic rehearsals. Jaouad’s paintings — her creative outlet after treatments leave her vision blurred — take on a parallel weight to the opus Batiste is creating. Their personal collaboration, which includes a spontaneous wedding, usurps, in this moment, his professional collaborations.
Heineman’s films have always been triumphs of access, of people giving the impression of forgetting that the director, often his own cinematographer, is in the room at the most intimate of moments. Sometimes that intimacy achieves harrowing or uncomfortable results, as it has in unflinching examinations of a military frontline or the frontlines of addiction. Here, with Batiste and Jaouad as executive producers as well as stars, intimacy is just intimacy, participation in a leap of faith that they know could end in tragedy.
There’s sadness and sweetness and deep reservoirs of now-documented love, whether it’s something as fraught as a doctor reading the latest test results or as playful as Jaouad taking Batiste sledding for the first time. I came into American Symphony with only surface-level awareness of their relationship; 100 minutes, my investment became all-encompassing. Whether you know where Jaouad’s medical story stands currently or you’re learning about it for the first time, Heineman concentrates as much on the glimpses of happiness and comedy as on the sequences of medical intensity; the result is closer to worrisome-yet-hopeful than depressing.
Batiste’s music does take a backseat for stretches of American Symphony and there are gaps in what Heineman once presumably imagined as a narrative throughline. I mentioned the pushing of Batiste’s professional collaborations to the side and there’s little doubt that in American Symphony, Batiste’s process and output are presented as significantly less communal than he probably prefers to think of them. Yes, he raves about his symphony conductor wearing Jordans and he namechecks his band, Stay Human, on occasion. But this becomes a version of Jon Batiste’s life story in which he’s a lone — not solitary, thanks to Jaouad — genius facing adversity and exhaustion.
There are perhaps a half-dozen too many shots of Batiste looking drained and shell-shocked, but surely that repeated imagery is representative of this experience for him. It’s an effective contrast to the boundless on-stage energy that Heineman captures with a different version of that same intimacy he brings to the love story; he finds Batiste’s fingers dancing on the keys of a piano, offers close-ups of his eyes as he takes in the responsiveness of a crowd, captures the electric charge he gets from hearing a musical idea come together.
The Carnegie Hall performance remains climactic but, like everything else here, in a different way than might have initially been expected. It doesn’t come across as quite the American tapestry Batiste set out to compose. As viewers, we never got to know the soloists, the individual musicians, the piece itself. We don’t know the journey that the symphony took, but we know the journey that Batiste and Jaouad took, and there’s still an astonishing and effective release.
At one point, Jaouad praises Batiste for his ability to adapt and change, but you know she could be talking about herself, about Heineman, about the American spirit and about this oft-jubilant documentary.
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