American Symphony captures musician Jon Batiste grappling with his wife’s cancer

The documentary was meant to be a road movie tracking Batiste’s cross-country trip in search of musicians and sounds. His wife’s resurgent illness changed the film.

click to enlarge Jon Batiste and Suleika Jaouad face her illness together. - Netflix
Jon Batiste and Suleika Jaouad face her illness together.
American Symphony
Directed by Matthew Heineman. Streaming on Netflix beginning November 29.

Awards season is upon us, which means famous people winning Oscars and Grammys while we mere mortals watch from home and imagine that those shimmering humans have it all. Standing on that stage, gold statue in hand, must surely be a perfect moment. Yet in the poignant documentary American Symphony, filmmaker Matthew Heineman is there as musician Jon Batiste wins five Grammys in 2022, including Album of the Year, only to find himself alone and bereft in a backstage green room after his moment of triumph. 

Batiste’s longtime partner and new bride, Suleika Jaouad, whom he first met when they were both teens in jazz camp, is not by his side. Instead, Jaouad watched the Grammys from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. The leukemia that had first struck her at age 22 — the focus of her Emmy-winning New York Times “Life, Interrupted” column and video series — was back after 10 years of remission. She received her first round of chemo the day Batiste’s 11 Grammy nominations were announced. On the big night, Jaouad was in the hospital, preparing to fight for her life. Again.

Jon Batiste’s perfect moment had been anything but.

Widely known as the original band leader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the New Orleans-raised, Juilliard-trained Batiste is first and foremost a composer, and Heineman’s film is most potent when we see Batiste in the act of creation. Originally, this was meant to be a road movie tracking Batiste’s cross-country trip in search of musicians and sounds to incorporate into his first symphony. Jaouad’s resurgent illness changed the structure and tenor of the film, but Batiste did find his musicians, most of them young, and all of them clearly thrilled to be called to this moment. “There’s a space,” Batiste declares, “for us all to be different and quirky and strange and beautiful together.” The ensemble’s Carnegie Hall performance will provide the film’s rousing musical climax.

Rehearsals begin even as Jaouad is being admitted to the hospital to receive the second bone marrow transplant of her life, a rare “last resort option.” And so it is that, while Batiste is trying on tuxedos for the concert, Jaouad calls to say that her port is bleeding. Should he come home, or stay on schedule? He chooses to stay on course and at home, Jaouad carries on too, trying on the beautiful sequined dress (and fabulous hat) she hopes to be well enough to wear to Carnegie Hall.

In a beautiful sequence at the rehearsal hall, Batiste begins to write a plaintive melody on the piano. It puzzles him. (Art begins in puzzlement.) He can’t fully fathom its parameters, which may be a metaphor for what he and his wife are going through. “Man, what is that,” he asks aloud. Later, during the concert, a technical glitch will force Batiste to improvise in front of 2,800 people. He faces the moment with preternatural calm, clearly a man who long ago learned to roll with the unexpected. It’s a skill he learned alongside his wife. 

Batiste is pigeonholed by the media as perpetually upbeat — a historical expectation and trap for Black artists, the composer notes. In private, he suffers panic attacks and anxiety. Alone at home for weeks on end, Batiste’s mind races. He can’t sleep. “Some days you just want to stop the train.” But his young orchestra is waiting, and at Sloan Kettering, Jaouad has begun to paint, which is her way of moving forward, even from her bed. She says, “We both see survival as its own kind of creative act.” 

American Symphony is a striking departure for Heineman, who made his name with documentaries about the Mexican drug trade (the Oscar-nominated Cartel Land), the war in Afghanistan (Retrograde) and COVID-19 (The First Wave). To capture Batiste at a particular moment in time, the filmmaker avoids the usual trappings of a performer’s profile. Batiste won an Oscar for co-composing the score to Soul but there’s no mention of that accolade here. Stephen Colbert doesn’t pop up to sing his friend’s praises. Batiste’s hits are only referenced at a glance. Instead, the director gives precedence to the music of a given day, an approach that may frustrate diehard fans and confuse those who come to the film with only a cursory knowledge of Batiste’s work.

A love story more than anything, American Symphony may prove most meaningful to those with ongoing illness in their lives. It’s wrenching to see a chemo-weakened Jaouad curled in pain and deeply moving to see her husband pressed up against her, as if to absorb her torment. Gold statues don’t matter to cancer, a fact Jaouad and Batiste face each day with remarkable grace. Love and laughter see them through, and those, this moving film suggests, are tools readily available to us all.

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