Jon Batiste and Suleika Jaouad bring you into their intimate, tough year in ‘American Symphony’

2022 was, by all accounts, a triumphant year for Jon Batiste. 

The musician, who a few years ago had been known to most as the jaunty Louisianan bandleader for “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” was tasked with conjuring a new symphonic composition to be performed at Carnegie Hall. He had been nominated for an astounding 11 Grammys spanning multiple genres of American music. He had plans to set out on a national tour.  

But amid the triumphs came a blow to his household: His partner, Suleika Jaouad, a successful artist and author in her own right, was diagnosed with cancer. Again. 

The tumultuous year, full of incredible highs, was also marked by devastating lows, all documented in the Netflix documentary “American Symphony.” The film, which premiered this year at the Telluride Film Festival, is likely to be an Oscar contender.

“It feels like we’re living a life of contrasts,” Jaouad says in the film, remarking at the ups and downs of such a tumultuous period in their lives. The two marry in a homespun ceremony captured in the film, as cancer treatment begins taking over her life.

Batiste’s friend, acclaimed documentary director Matthew Heineman, told an audience at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Monday that he spent as many as 18 hours a day with Batiste and Jaouad, capturing their most intimate moments. 

Suleika Jaouad and Jon Batiste in "American Symphony."
Suleika Jaouad and Jon Batiste in “American Symphony.” Courtesy Netflix

The initial intention of the film was to document the process of bringing Batiste’s lively style to a full symphony orchestra at the famed Carnegie Hall, a few blocks away from Batiste’s hallowed alma mater, The Juilliard School. Batiste explained in the film that it felt important to document this process because so few Black musical achievements are considered automatically canonical to American music. The intent behind his “American Symphony,” which was staged in September 2022, was to show what it would look and sound like if a symphony orchestra was created in this country today.

Both Batiste and Heineman lean into vulnerability and discomfort, telling an intimate tale: Batiste with sometimes purposefully discordant music and Heineman holding close, intimate, extended shots full of tension. In one scene during a concert on Batiste’s tour, the film holds a 95-second silent, emotional pause before Batiste improvises a song during a concert dedicated to his wife.