How Jon Batiste Convinced Wife Suleika Jaouad to Document Cancer Battle in ‘American Symphony’

TheWrap magazine: “It’s hard to talk about the grief that you’re feeling. It’s hard to talk about your worst fears,” director Matthew Heineman says

Suleika Jaouad and Jon Batiste in "American Symphony" (Netflix)
Suleika Jaouad and Jon Batiste in "American Symphony" (Credit: Netflix)

A version of this story first appeared in the SAG Preview/Documentary issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Oscar-winning musician Jon Batiste and his wife, the artist and writer Suleika Jaouad, are the subjects of Matthew Heineman’s uplifting film about an eventful year in the couple’s life.

The humane documentary, originally conceived to follow Batiste’s composition of an American Symphony at Carnegie Hall, took on a new dimension when Jaouad began treatment for a recurrence of leukemia. That tough news occurred in the same week that Batiste scored 11 Grammy nominations for 2021’s “We Are,” which would go on to win Album of the Year.

Heineman, 40, who was nominated for the documentary Oscar for 2015’s “Cartel Land,” focuses intimately on both the pain and perseverance of Jaouad and Batiste during this period in their lives. As with all of the director’s work (“Escape Fire,” “City of Ghosts,” “The First Wave,” “Retrograde”), the movie unfolds in a cinéma vérité format, without narration or interviews.

The film, which was acquired by Netflix and the Obamas’ Higher Ground Production after premiering in Telluride, is streaming now on Netflix.

You’ve known Jon Batiste as a friend and a collaborator [Batiste wrote the score for Heinman’s 2021 documentary “The First Wave”], and he is a natural subject for a film. But how did you convince Suleika Jaouad to be a part of this?
When Jon told me that he was going to compose his first symphony, we both sort of turned to each other and said, “Yeah, we should document this.” But little did we know that life would intervene and Suleika would be re-diagnosed with cancer.

And yes, Suleika initially didn’t want to be part of the film. She didn’t want to be the sick antidote to Jon’s success. And so it took a lot of conversations and trust building to explain to her that I really wanted to both document Jon’s journey through all this, but obviously her own journey and her journey as an artist through all this. And understandably, it took her some time to warm up to the cameras and the filming.

Netflix

Even Jon must have needed to warm up to the amount of filming. How many hours of footage do you estimate that you shot?
About 1,500 hours. Yeah, obviously, Jon’s had a lot of cameras in front of him in his life, but he’d never been filmed in this way. And so it definitely took a bit of getting used to. We were filming 12, 16, 18 hours a day for six or seven months. It was a real commitment on their part and we owe so much to them for opening
up their lives to us at such an unbelievably sensitive time.

Halfway through the film, Jon is performing on stage, and he dedicates a song to Suleika, who is struggling with her cancer treatment. And he pauses before he begins playing the piano – and his pause lasts for 95 seconds. You don’t cut away for more than two minutes. Can you talk about that shot?
That was actually a big breakthrough in the edit. That scene wasn’t always working and I was almost going to cut it. But then I went in and pulled out the handles of that clip and realized that, wow, I mean, in those 95 or so seconds, Jon writes a novella for us. The way he hesitates, the way he breathes, his body posture, his hands, his eyes. It’s all expressed without words — his deep love for his wife and what he’s dealing with.

It’s hard to talk about the grief that you’re feeling. It’s hard to talk about your worst fears as your wife is battling cancer. It’s hard to combine all that in a beautiful musical moment. But that’s completely on display in this one shot, in
a way that an interview at that moment with Jon could never have done.

Also, I mean, Jon channels something when he plays. I don’t know what it is, but it is definitely something. And he’s also doing that in that moment. So much of his being is personified in those 95 seconds.

One of the most enjoyable scenes shows Jon at the airport talking to a shoeshine man who doesn’t recognize him at first, but then notices Jon’s face on his newspaper.
I’ve filmed with Jon countless times in airports and he’ll be stopped every now and then, but after the Grammys I had this spider sense that something interesting was going to happen. And so, yeah, that scene with the shoeshine guy, that’s why I love making docs like this. If you wrote that scene in a scripted feature, it would feel preposterous.

You mention the Grammys and we actually see a closeup of Jon when he wins Album of the Year in 2022. But that was obtained through some crafty guerrilla filmmaking?
I mean, we tried for months to get access through traditional channels but [the Grammys] just weren’t having it. And so on the day, I snuck in as part of Jon’s entourage. I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and obviously I couldn’t bring my real camera in there, so I brought an extra iPhone to shoot.

To me, it felt almost irresponsible as a filmmaker to have a film that’s so up close and intimate — and then on one of the biggest nights in Jon’s career, to have to cut to the TV feed. I wanted to see his reaction in real time, with his parents and his friends. When he won Album of the Year, he was sharing a table with John Legend and I was balancing John Legend’s kids on my lap as I was shooting with the iPhone. It was quite a trippy moment.

People have said that this feels like a gear shift in your career, which has included combat films like “City of Ghosts,” “A Private War,” and last year’s “Retrograde.” Do you see it that way?
I don’t really view this any differently. It is the same process. You know, I’m drawn to fascinating people who are trying to overcome some sort of obstacle.

Obviously, it’s a different canvas here. And this isn’t in a war zone, but it still has those characteristics. It didn’t feel like a departure. It just felt like a new challenge. And to be with two artists at a crossroads, who are surviving, as they say in the movie, through their art, during this incredibly difficult moment in their lives, was such an inspiring thing to witness.

We should mention that Suleika is doing well. The film ends with Jon’s great performance of the American Symphony at Carnegie Hall, but then we get a glimpse of Suleika and Jon walking, with a pink winter sky in front of them. How important is that scene?
We had edited the film for months and we had an ending, which showed Jon’s amazing rendition of the “National Anthem” at Carnegie Hall, which was beautiful and poignant and tied into the themes of the film.

But it just didn’t feel like it was, for me, the story we were telling. So on the night before we were locking the film for Telluride, we tried this scene of Suleika and Jon walking together. It’s them together, it’s them looking into an unknown future.

Documentaries can sometimes be reductionistic, but I love allowing audiences to interpret the complex, grayness of life. There’s ambiguity in that moment, which I love. I don’t think it’s just about Suleika and Jon walking off into the sunset. It’s about them moving forward.

A version of this story first appeared in the SAG Preview/Documentary issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from that issue here.

Lily Gladstone Wrap cover
Photo by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap

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