In the documentary “American Symphony,” which chronicles a year in the life of musician Jon Batiste, the most powerful moments occur when he is seated at a piano. However, the film can also feel unfocused at times.
Batiste, a musician who harmonizes between genres like jazz, classical, R&B and funk, is most famous for leading Stay Human, the house band on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and taking home Album of the Year at the 2022 Grammys. That prize pairs nicely with his Oscar for scoring Pixar’s Soul alongside Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
Batiste is a highly skilled musician with official certification. This is evident as we witness his finest moment with the American Symphony, in an initial scene where he collaborates with an unnamed trombonist while playing a Steinway piano for his debut at Carnegie Hall – an event also known as American Symphony.
While typing away, Batiste stumbles upon a somber melody. He inquires about it, and both he and the trombone player quickly latch onto the beautiful and delicate riff. They listen attentively, playing it again and again, with the trombone and piano working together to further explore its meaning. It’s a captivating and emotive piece, mirroring the philosophical musings Batiste shared earlier about how music can feel inevitable. He explains, “It’s about playing what we know is happening, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. It’s always there, we just have to tap into it and be receptive.” Initially, I brushed off his words as self-important talk. However, as we observe him at the Steinway, we see them come to life.
Imagine Batiste’s existence as a symphony. He constantly moves between practicing, attending the Grammys, and being by his wife Suleika Jaouad’s side in the hospital as she battles leukemia again. There are moments of triumph, moments of despair, and moments where both emotions collide. It is all a symphony for American Symphony to capture. The scene at the Steinway piano, which is skillfully woven between poignant, celebratory, and vulnerable moments shared by Batiste and Jaouad, stands out as one of the few instances where the film truly shines.
Sometimes, Matthew Heineman’s visually stunning and praise-worthy documentary can appear to be conflicted between the various events happening in Batiste’s life and the original purpose of the film. American Symphony, featuring Barack and Michelle Obama as executive producers, was initially intended to be a simple music documentary. Batiste planned to showcase his inclusive and diverse style by touring across the United States, gathering a range of influences – from folk to Indigenous drumming – to incorporate into his ambitious performance at Carnegie Hall. However, obstacles arose along the way.
In the autumn of 2021, on the same day that Batiste received 11 Grammy nominations, Jaouad, a successful author, discovered that her cancer, which she was diagnosed with at 22, had returned. As new waves of Covid approached, Batiste’s tour plans were put on hold and replaced with Zoom calls due to the conflicting schedule of an awards show and Jaouad’s hospital visits. She was emotionally and physically preparing for a bone marrow transplant. On the night of the Grammys, she watched Batiste deliver a showstopping performance of his hit song “Freedom” before returning to the hospital for cancer treatment.
The American Symphony makes an admirable shift, but despite its wide range of topics, it does not delve deeply. The film touches on Batiste’s career and his role as a young Black artist who challenges gatekeepers by straddling the classical world, but only in a superficial manner. While the movie wisely focuses on his loving and enduring relationship with Jaouad, our understanding of their characters remains surface-level.
Batiste exudes a lively and motivating energy, yet there is a sense of caution that maintains a respectful boundary between us. While his unwavering positivity is crucial in boosting everyone’s morale, it can also serve as a defense mechanism. Moments when we observe him at his bedside, attempting to sleep while cameras are present or speaking on the phone with his therapist about his anxiety, seem like carefully crafted displays of intimacy. Interestingly, it is during his performances that Batiste appears most exposed, as if music provides a secure outlet for him to fully express himself.
Unfortunately, we only get to witness snippets of the climactic performance at Carnegie Hall. Batiste’s intentions are once again thwarted as a power failure causes his orchestra to stop playing. Left with only the piano, he takes a moment to gather himself before confidently launching into a powerful and emotional solo that requires the audience to fully immerse themselves in the music.
The American Symphony will be released in US theaters on November 24 and on Netflix worldwide on November 29.