American Symphony Movie Review


Musical fans will love the American Symphony for its close-up glimpse of creativity at work. But those less familiar with Batiste’s polyglot style will find the film a bit scattershot in its coverage of his whirlwind year.

As Batiste reaches a career climax, his fiancee and co-writer Suleika Jaouad learns her cancer has returned after a decade in remission. The high-wire tension between public success and private struggle makes for compelling viewing.

The Cast

In 2022, multi-Grammy winner Jon Batiste was at the peak of his professional success as he served as band leader on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and sought to complete American Symphony, an ambitious composition designed to represent the full breadth of Black music, culture and creativity. But as Batiste worked, his partner Suleika Jaouad learned that her recurrence of leukemia was a harbinger of more bad news to come. As this heartwarming and heartbreaking documentary follows the couple through both of their peaks and valleys, director Matthew Heineman delivers a profound tribute to the power of love and art to overcome the worst kinds of adversity.

While there are a few moments in the film where Batiste seems to let his frustration at not quite fitting into genre boxes or at the racism dogging his career flare up, Heineman does a great job of keeping that to a minimum and letting the focus remain on the couple’s struggle for inspiration as they work through their personal crisis. In that way, American Symphony becomes a living-with-cancer drama first and a portrait of an artist at work second, which is arguably the best kind of doc there is.

At its best, American Symphony is a deeply moving and inspiring film about the complexities of family life, the arc of artistic success and the ties that keep us all together, even when those connections are stretched to their limits.

The Story

American Symphony, which premiered at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival, follows multi-instrumentalist Jon Batiste as he creates his most ambitious adventure movies to date. The film chronicles the process of composing his eponymous symphony, an original composition that brings together classical traditions with jazz, blues, gospel, and Native American music. The film also reveals the challenges that come with such a monumental endeavor and the toll that it takes on a person’s personal life.

It’s a portrait of two inimitable artists at a crossroads, and it is also a meditation on art, love, and the creative process. Matthew Heineman’s previous films have delved into war zones and conflict, but his latest feature is about the beauty of creation as well as the pain that accompanies it.

The film demonstrates the symbiotic relationship between creativity and survival. As Batiste strove to bring his symphony to fruition, his partner Suleika Jaouad suffered from the recurrence of her cancer. The two endured the best and worst days of their lives simultaneously, and they did it all while creating something whose full realization would take decades.

American Symphony is a joyful and heartbreaking story of a man making an artistic masterpiece while facing a personal tragedy. Its balance of uplift and pain, of career and family, is a testament to the indomitable spirit of humanity.

A Love Story

American Symphony, which premiered at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival, doesn’t shy away from harrowing moments and intense emotion. But it’s also a celebration of life and art, and the way the two go hand in hand.

As Heineman’s cameras follow Batiste and his orchestra through a year of jubilant highs and heartbreaking lows, they show how the beauty of creation coexists with the pain of living. The movie is a testament to the inescapable duality of triumph and tragedy, and the power of love.

Heineman grants his subjects complete freedom with his camera, capturing them in music studios and concert halls, airports and hotels, and countless hospital rooms. The juxtaposition of the jubilant celebrations with the heartbreaking realities of Jaouad’s recurring leukemia is what makes the movie so effective.

Heineman’s documentary doesn’t quite rise to the heights of its subject, but that’s what makes it so effective. Instead of falling into the trap of over-dramatizing events, Heineman focuses on the moments that truly matter: the moments when a jubilant crowd joins in with the chorus of a song, or when Batiste and Jaouad embrace at her side as she endures chemo. These are the moments that will linger with audiences long after the credits roll. It’s not a romance, but it is a love story about the deep connection that comes from being with someone through the best and worst days of their lives.

A Documentary

It’s easy to watch American Symphony and see traces of the brand-management impulse that often infests music documentaries. Heineman films the bandleader constructing his eponymous work, but doesn’t spend much time on the minutiae of the composition process or analyzing how his symphony reflects or transcends musical genres.

The film does show the jubilant ups and heartbreaking downs of a career in high gear and a family confronting the recurrence of a debilitating disease. Heineman captures Batiste tearing through an array of music venues and concert halls as well as intimate moments at home and in hospitals, including one painful scene that features Jaouad hiding her head beneath a pillow during a panic attack while talking to her therapist over the phone.

Heineman also takes a surprisingly candid look at the couple’s relationship and their approach to living a life of contrasts. The film gently pokes at the double standard that exists when a famous black musician is able to nab so many Grammy nominations, while other artists struggle to break through.

Ultimately, this is a love story that proves that art and life are inescapable duos. It’s a harrowing reminder that gold statues aren’t enough to fight back against cancer and that holding on and moving forward are both essential. It’s a beautiful and inspiring film that will especially resonate with anyone who has had to navigate the trials of a chronic illness.

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