In the documentary “n American Symphony,” which chronicles the recording artist Jon Batiste’s busy year, the most powerful moments often occur when he is playing the piano.
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 certified musical genius. That’s a given when we arrive at American Symphony’s finest moment, an early scene when Batiste is sitting at a Steinway, working out a composition alongside an unnamed trombone player for his debut at Carnegie Hall – that show is also dubbed American Symphony.
While playing the piano, Batiste comes across some somber notes. He asks about it and both he and the trombone player quickly latch onto the beautiful melody. They listen carefully and continue to explore the meaning behind it, with the trombone joining in. It’s a transcendent and emotional moment, reminiscent of Batiste’s earlier statement in the film about how music is inevitable and always present. His words may have seemed boastful at first, but as we see him play on the Steinway, they ring true.
Imagine Batiste’s journey as a musical composition. He moves from rehearsals to the Grammy Awards to his wife Suleika Jaouad’s hospital room, where she is battling leukemia once again. There are moments of triumph and despair, and times when both emotions clash dramatically. This is all material for the American Symphony to capture and interpret. In one particular scene at the Steinway piano, the film captures the bittersweet and fragile moments shared between Batiste and Jaouad, and it stands out as one of the few scenes that truly captures the essence of their story.
Sometimes, Matthew Heineman’s visually stunning and complimentary documentary can appear to be caught in a conflict between the various elements of Jon Batiste’s life and the original purpose of the film. American Symphony, which features Barack and Michelle Obama as executive producers, was initially intended to be a straightforward music documentary. Batiste had planned to showcase his inclusive and genre-blending style as he traveled across the United States to gather diverse influences, ranging from folk to Indigenous drumming, to be incorporated into his ambitious performance at Carnegie Hall. However, obstacles arose along the way.
During the autumn of 2021, Batiste received 11 Grammy nominations on the same day that best-selling author Jaouad learned her cancer had returned, a decade after her initial diagnosis at 22. As Covid cases surged once again, Batiste’s touring plans were put on hold and he instead had to resort to Zoom calls in between attending award shows and visiting Jaouad in the hospital. Meanwhile, Jaouad was mentally and physically preparing for a bone marrow transplant. While at home, she watched Batiste deliver a showstopping performance of his hit song “Freedom” at the Grammys before returning to the hospital for her cancer treatment.
The American Symphony takes a brave turn, however, it only scratches the surface despite covering a wide range of topics. Batiste’s professional journey and his impact as a young Black artist who challenges traditional standards by blending classical and contemporary elements, is presented in general terms. While the film wisely focuses on his enduring and supportive bond with Jaouad, and their personal struggles, their identities still seem shallowly explored.
Batiste exudes a positive and motivating energy, but there is an element of caution that creates a sense of distance between us. His unwavering positivity, which is essential in keeping everyone’s morale high, can also serve as a barrier. Moments when we observe him in bed, struggling to sleep while being watched by cameras or discussing his anxiety with his therapist on speakerphone, feel like carefully crafted moments of intimacy. Interestingly, it is when Batiste is performing that he appears most vulnerable, as if music is his safe haven to express himself fully.
At the climax of the concert at Carnegie Hall, we only get to see some parts of it, unfortunately. Batiste’s plans are once again interrupted by a power outage that affects his orchestra. He is left with no choice but to play the piano. After an uncomfortable pause, he quickly changes course and takes advantage of the moment, diving into a passionate solo that requires the audience to be receptive to it.
The American Symphony will be released in US theaters on November 24th and will be available on Netflix worldwide on November 29th.