Matthew Heineman’s documentary “American Symphony” started out to be about the writing and performance of a massive, ambitious and genre-jumping symphony by musician, singer, Grammy and Oscar winner Jon Batiste. But over the course of filming, the movie came to chronicle the relationship between Batiste and his wife, writer Suleika Jaouad, whose leukemia returned after a decade in remission the same week Batiste was nominated for 11 Grammys.
And while footage from the symphony’s Carnegie Hall debut makes the case that Batiste has written a thrilling compendium of the music of the American diaspora, the most moving music in the film might well be “It Never Went Away,” the gentle piano ballad that follows the Carnegie concert by bringing things down to one piano, one voice and the story of two people.
When he and Heineman decided to use an original song at the end of the film, Batiste knew the tune would need to have musical roots somewhere in what was happening during the time he was being filmed. And he knew he had material to draw from that made perfect sense for a song of devotion and love that doesn’t fade.
“It’s moving just to think about this,” Batiste said. “When Suleika was in the hospital, I wrote her lullabies every day. I would play them in the room while she would paint, and then she would fall asleep to the lullabies. The piano theme in that song is one of those lullabies. It felt spiritually connected to everything that happened.”
To finish the song, he sat with co-writer Dan Wilson and had a long conversation about everything he’d been through with Jaouad. “He was like a dramaturge,” Batiste said. “We would edit certain things lyrically to make it as concise as possible. It was saying the thing that was unsaid and unspoken in the most direct way possible, and envisioning not just me singing, but me singing to Suleika. The song came easy in a sense, because it came in one day of recording: I sat at the piano and I sang it. But it came from so much experience that I don’t want to say it came easy.”
Coming on the heels of the Best Original Score Oscar he won for Pixar’s “Soul” (along with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross), “American Symphony” has helped convince Batiste that he should keep exploring the intersection of music and film. “It feels very natural to me,” he said, tracing his musical history: composing as a kid inspired by video games, learning classical piano, absorbing the sounds of New Orleans, playing jazz, taking any gig he could get in his early years in New York, making pop albums and then using everything he’d learned in his symphony.
“It’s an organic process, the way I’ve developed as an artist and a musician and a composer without even knowing it,” he said, laughing. “Put the video games on, play a bunch of gigs, study classical music, go to Juilliard, make pop albums, compose symphonies. Where does it all fit together? The movies.”
This story first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the Race Begins issue here.