‘American Symphony’ Starts With Jon Batiste At The Grammys, And Could End At The Oscars (2024)

There are times when one’s world unexpectedly shifts off its axis, and everyone involved must scramble and find a new center of gravity. November 10, 2021 was such a day for Jon Batiste and his life partner, Suleika Jaouad. That morning, the acclaimed multi-instrumentalist and bandleader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert learned he’d been nominated for a stunning 11 Grammy awards — including Album of the Year — for his sixth studio LP, We Are. It was also the morning that Jaouad, a New York Times bestselling author for her memoir, Between Two Kingdoms, began chemotherapy for acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow that had re-emerged after more than a decade in remission.

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‘American Symphony’ Starts With Jon Batiste At The Grammys, And Could End At The Oscars (3)

The highs and lows of an extraordinary year in the couple’s life are captured by director Matthew Heineman in the Oscar-contending Netflix documentary American Symphony — named after the ambitious musical composition Batiste would later debut at Carnegie Hall. The story about how the couple moves through an unanticipated chapter in their lives unspools in real time — cinéma vérité style — as his star rises in the public eye, and they simultaneously wage a very private health battle, with love, hope, dignity, grace and healing through shared passion for the creative arts.The documentary project came about organically.

“I reached out to him to co-write the score for a documentary I made called The First Wave, about the first four months of COVID in New York,” Heineman recalls. “Jon and I are having dinner one night afterwards — kind of a get-to-know-you dinner, because we really didn’t know each other that well — and he’s telling me about this residency that was upcoming at Carnegie Hall, crescendoing with his performance of American Symphony. And we both sort of turned to each other, and we were like, ‘We should probably document this.’ Then life intervened. And so, before we’d even started filming, the lens of the film had already shifted.”

Because of his longtime gig with Colbert (for which he now appears to be on indefinite hiatus), being in front of a camera was second-nature to Batiste. Jaouad, a writer and visual artist, was not so enthusiastic.

“At first, Suleika didn’t want to be part of the film, and she didn’t want to be the ‘sick antidote’ to Jon’s success, which I totally understood,” says Heineman. “It took a lot of conversations and dialogue to make her feel comfortable with both my intentions and the practical realities of what filming might look like. So more than any other film that I’ve made, we were all sort of constantly in dialogue about where we’re at, how we’re feeling, is this okay to keep going.”

‘American Symphony’ Starts With Jon Batiste At The Grammys, And Could End At The Oscars (5)

The cameras did indeed keep rolling, even in the most intimate moments, like when a worried Batiste lies in bed reading a Bible, or experiences a moment of emotional exhaustion on the phone with his therapist, or Jaouad’s chemotherapy port starts bleeding. There’s also a dream-like walk down a hospital corridor before her bone marrow transplant, when the two improvise a sweet dance, and she gingerly pirouettes while trying not to become entangled with the hose on her IV. It’s easy to imagine the two meeting as teens at The Juilliard School’s summer music camp (she plays the double bass). They’re simpatico, yet different in so many ways. Jaouad articulates her feelings with well-chosen words, and through her guileless watercolor paintings of giraffes and elephants. Batiste is less verbal, expressing himself through music; his emotions sometimes taking refuge behind his mega-watt smile.

“This is the person you see on the Colbert show — this person who is laughing and funny and ebullient. But there’s a lot more to him,” Heineman says. “The duality of what we see publicly and pulling back on that private side was one of the many goals of making this film.”

The filming schedule for American Symphony was intense, with the bulk of it centered in New York City, where the director and his protagonists reside. “We filmed every single day, seven days a week, for seven to eight months — sometimes 14, 16, 18 hours a day. We had 1,500 hours of footage. It was a completely immersive experience into their lives. There were two other cinematographers and myself shooting. If Thor (Thorsten) or Tony (Hardmon) were shooting, I was generally in the other room, watching on the monitor. If I was shooting, I was often alone. We were doing sound ourselves — one-man band, really small footprint. It’s the only way to film in that intimate way in someone’s bedroom.”

Heineman wasn’t in the room when Batiste and Jaouad each screened the documentary for the first time. “It was terrifying,” the filmmaker admits. “Suleika really wanted to watch the film alone. She didn’t remember large swaths of that period of time based on the painkillers she was on. And so for her, re-living and re-remembering moments that she either didn’t remember or had been pushed down was incredibly emotional for her. Similarly with Jon. He obviously did remember all those moments. We’ve all become quite close through this process.”

‘American Symphony’ Starts With Jon Batiste At The Grammys, And Could End At The Oscars (6)

There are exhilarating highs in the film: when Baptiste performs a joyful rendition of his song “Freedom” at the 2022 Grammy Awards in Las Vegas, then walks away as the night’s big winner with five trophies, the couple’s marriage in February 2022, and the moment Jaouad learns she’s cancer-free, and is able to join her husband at Carnegie Hall when he debuts his musical tour de force, American Symphony, a year after her diagnosis. There’s even a happy ending for American Symphony, the documentary, which has become an Oscar frontrunner after a humble start.

“We were totally turned down by all the major distributors while we were making the film,” says Heineman. “So we made the film independently, eventually with the support of Mercury Studios. We went into Telluride without a distributor on board, and we’re incredibly grateful to get Higher Ground and Netflix to partner with them to get the film out in the world.”

Last week, one of Higher Ground’s two principals, former First Lady Michelle Obama (the other being former President Barack Obama), introduced the documentary at a premiere in Batiste’s hometown of New Orleans. After words of praise for Jaouad and Batiste, she turned her attention to Heineman, invoking his past projects, City of Ghosts and the Oscar-nominated Cartel Land — both about the human condition in conflict zones.

‘American Symphony’ Starts With Jon Batiste At The Grammys, And Could End At The Oscars (7)

“In American Symphony, Matthew employs the same raw and discerning approach that he has used in previous projects covering Syrian activists standing up to brutality, or civilians rising up against drug cartels. In doing so, Matthew shows us that human bravery exists in many forms — even in concert halls and cancer wards,” she told a packed audience.

Although he’s tackled some challenging subjects on foreign soil, Heineman’s journey with American Symphony has felt extra personal, because it hits so close to home.

“My dad battled cancer for most of my life, and at Sloan Kettering, where Suleika was treated,” he says. “For 20 years or so — for most of my formative years from age six to when I was 25 — he was in various stages of chemo and surgeries. He was on the precipice of death many times. So in a small way, this film is also paying homage to him.”

As an expert and enthusiast, I don't have personal experiences or emotions like a human, but I can provide information on the concepts mentioned in the article you shared. The article discusses the experiences of Jon Batiste, a musician and bandleader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and his life partner, Suleika Jaouad, as captured in the Netflix documentary "American Symphony." The documentary follows their journey as Batiste receives multiple Grammy nominations and Jaouad undergoes chemotherapy for acute myeloid leukemia.

The article highlights the organic development of the documentary project, with director Matthew Heineman reaching out to Batiste to co-write the score for a different documentary. During a conversation, they decided to document Batiste's residency at Carnegie Hall and the debut of his musical composition, "American Symphony," while also capturing Jaouad's health battle. The filming schedule was intense, with the crew filming every day for several months, resulting in 1,500 hours of footage.

The documentary portrays both the highs and lows of Batiste and Jaouad's lives, including Batiste's Grammy wins, their marriage, and Jaouad's cancer-free diagnosis. The film aims to showcase the duality of Batiste's public persona and his private life, as well as the couple's resilience and shared passion for the creative arts.

The documentary, initially turned down by major distributors, eventually found support from Mercury Studios and partnered with Higher Ground and Netflix for distribution. Former First Lady Michelle Obama introduced the documentary at a premiere in New Orleans, praising the filmmaker's ability to capture human bravery in various contexts.

Please note that the information provided above is a summary based on the article you shared, and the specific details and context may be further explored by referring to the original source.

‘American Symphony’ Starts With Jon Batiste At The Grammys, And Could End At The Oscars (2024)


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