‘American Symphony’ Review: Documentary Captures Jon Batiste’s Personal and Professional Struggles

Telluride Film Festival: Matthew Heineman’s doc jumps between uplift and heartbreak, between Batiste’s career pressures and his wife’s fight for survival

American Symphony Jon Batiste
"American Symphony" (Netflix)

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

For director Matthew Heineman, that road was a very roundabout one that went across the United States (“Our Time,” 2011), journeyed into the Mexican drug cartels (“Cartel Land,” 2015), ran in and out of Syria (“City of Ghosts,” 2017), stayed with healthcare workers during the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic (“The First Wave,” 2021) and braved the chaotic Kabul airport during the final days of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan (“Retrograde,” 2022).

But with “American Symphony,” which had its world premiere on Friday at the Telluride Film Festival, Heineman and his cameras settle in with musician Jon Batiste as he prepares for the Carnegie Hall debut of a major composition that mixes a classical orchestra with jazz, folk, blues, gospel and Native American music. Where Heineman’s earlier films were about violence, conflict and death, his new one deals with the creation of art.

There’s more to it than that, of course. “American Symphony” is about the creation of art in the face of pressure, tragedy and heartbreak, and about the tension between the glory of creation and the pain of living. It manages to capture the glory but it never ignores the price.

If this wasn’t a complicated and fraught story, it’s hard to imagine that the Oscar-nominated Heineman would have been interested, though you couldn’t blame the guy if he was looking for something lighter after the harrowing “The First Wave” and “Retrograde.” But there’s nothing light about “American Symphony,” because when Batiste was preparing for his Carnegie Hall debut, his longtime partner and soon-to-be wife, writer Suleika Jaouad, had to undergo a second bone marrow transplant to treat the acute myeloid leukemia she’d first been diagnosed with a decade earlier.

She returned to the hospital to fight for her life; meanwhile, Batiste, a New Orleans-born musician, Juilliard graduate and former “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” bandleader, was preparing his most ambitious work, one designed to answer his question, “if a symphony orchestra was created in 2022, what would it be?”

“American Symphony” is less a delicate balancing act than a film that embraces personal and professional whiplash; it jumps between uplift and heartbreak, between career pressures and personal ones. One particularly brutal juxtaposition: The day that Grammy nominations were announced in 2021, with Batiste leading all musicians with 11 noms, was also the first day that Jaouad began chemotherapy for the recurrence of her cancer.

The film takes those tough contrasts and runs with them: One moment we’re in the hospital, the next in a spacious rehearsal room with dozens of musicians. Batiste helps Jaouad navigate institutional halls with her rack of IVs one moment, then heads out on the road to do some shows the next. He performs exuberant concerts in front of delighted fans, goes back to the hotel gets on the phone to hear Jaouad talk about how her bed filled with blood earlier that day.  

For the most part, Heineman sticks with vérité footage, some of it seemingly shot just inches away from his subjects’ faces. But even from across the room, it can be shockingly intimate, from footage of their home wedding to Batiste shaving Jaouad’s head to him on the phone with his therapist to moments in the hospital where Jaouad is, in her own words, “in survival mode.”

In a way, Batiste is in a professional survival mode, too. He’s enjoying success beyond his dreams, winning five of those 11 Grammy nominations, including an upset victory for Album of the Year. But at the same time, he tells a friend, he knows that extreme success can be a trap, particularly for Black men in America.

“All the Black male ones crack,” he says. “At a certain level, they all crack … If I keep rising up higher, am I gonna crack?”

But his goal isn’t just to remain sane, it’s to create a piece of work that takes different strains of American music and puts them on the same stage in what is traditionally a classical setting. He starts by writing 40 minutes of music on his own, then brings in other musicians to improvise and make their own contributions to what becomes an expansive, complicated and contradictory piece of music.

The film’s homestretch takes us to Carnegie Hall, with Jaouad in attendance in what she says is her first time out of the house or hospital in more than a year. The musicians weather a brief onstage power outage, with Batiste delivering an unamplified piano solo that becomes a summation of his and his wife’s entire journey. And then the power comes back on, the classical virtuosos and jazz cats and Native American drummers and soulful vocalists step up and the ensemble comes together on a work that, in the truncated form that we see on screen, seems to be both a truly American symphony and a portrait of one particular American life.

By then, the old question, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” has changed. Now it’s “Why do you get to Carnegie Hall?” And “American Symphony” supplies a convincing answer.