Stream It Or Skip It?

todayNovember 30, 2023 2

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American Symphony (Netflix) is a documentary. But don’t expect talking head interviews and other observers offering superlatives and side context. Instead, imagine director and co-producer Matthew Heineman’s film as a journey both arduous and glorious. As multi-instrumentalist, singer, composer, and Late Show With Stephen Colbert bandleader Jon Batiste’s career soared – an armload of Grammys and the creation of a new symphony to be performed at Carnegie Hall – he and his wife, writer and artist Suleika Jaouad, learned that her leukemia had returned after nearly ten years in remission. These are individuals accustomed to countering adversity with creativity. But as work-life balance goes, their support for each other never mattered more. “You have to confront the brutal facts of the reality that you might not pull it off,” Batiste says in American Symphony. “But at the same time, have unwavering faith.”        

The Gist: As Jon Batiste plays his melodica in the solitude of a quiet river scene in winter, his voiceover expresses how his mind is always making things. He was born to a musical family in Louisiana, was educated in percussion and piano in New Orleans, and attended Julliard for his undergrad and graduate level programs. But his pursuit of music was never to just make entertainment. For Batiste, music is a spiritual practice. “What we love about music is not that it sounds good. What we love about music is that it sounds inevitable.” 

American Symphony follows Batiste as he’s commissioned by Carnegie Hall to write and perform a large scale composition, and he admits it’s a big undertaking. Massive, even. His aim is to penetrate the established musical canon in this country, to communicate unspoken pain and joy, represent the scope of the Black creative experience, and “break through long gate-kept spaces.” And as Heineman’s camera captures him in searching close-ups, often at a piano or with his melodica nearby, Batiste plots out a gentle melodic sequence that will repeat throughout the doc until it arrives fully formed on Perelman Stage at Carnegie’s iconic Stern Auditorium. 

But Suleika Jaouad’s cancer also comes back. Jaouad, a New York Times columnist, award-winning memoirist, and renowned speaker, met Batiste at band camp when they were teenagers. But the flourishing of their creative and romantic partnership meets a new challenge in the reality that she’ll require a difficult second bone marrow transplant. And on Jaouad’s first day of chemotherapy, it’s announced that Batiste is up for 11 nominations at the 2022 Grammy Awards. Symphony then becomes a kind of split-screen montage, as a newly-shorn Jaouad undertakes treatment and Batiste checks in constantly from concerts on the road and in the green room at Colbert. “I’m always in awe of Suleika,” Batiste says, “and how she deals with hardship.” And Batiste must deal with it, too – through bouts of anxiety, exhaustion, and professional burnout – as he continues work on the symphony while searching his faith for strength. 

The show must go on, always. And when it’s finally opening night, the adversity they’ve encountered together combines with joy on Batiste’s face as his symphony is performed in all of its deeply felt, far-reaching majesty.  

Photo: ©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

What Movies Will It Remind You Of? The 2021 documentary Reclaiming History: Our Native Daughters (Paramount+) followed musicians Rhiannon Giddens, Amethyst Kiah, Allison Russell, and Leyla McCalla as they wrote and recorded a record that reclaimed the banjo as an important instrument of Black expression, and explored a new synthesis of centuries-old slave narratives and song with a modern, proudly female perspective. 

Performance Worth Watching: As American Symphony weaves its narrative, and Batiste continues to hone his largest-form composition to date, the film often pauses for quieter sections of study between himself and a single musician or two. For instance, Batiste will play a soft figure on his Steinway, and be joined by a slide trombonist, the two working out the changes and natural flow of the melody organically as professionals, but also as professional listeners and interpreters. “That’s important, man. That thing. Where it feels familiar, at home. When it feels like something, but it’s not something. That’s when you know it’s good.”  

Memorable Dialogue: If one word were to describe Batiste’s vision for his symphony, it would be “expansive.” “Basically like, OK, so if a symphony orchestra was created in 2022, what would that be? What would the music that it played sound like? You’d have classical musicians in there, for sure. Avant-garde musicians, folk musicians, jazz musicians. There is room for all of us to coexist. To be strange and beautiful together.”

Sex and Skin: None.

Our Take: American Symphony doesn’t require the traditional trappings of a music documentary. You know, the cutaways to experts or critics or its subject’s professional peers, offering takes and observations. And while it might have benefitted from a few subtle onscreen titles, putting a name with the many faces of musicians and other professionals who pass through Jon Batiste and Suleika Jaouad’s life together, it ultimately doesn’t require that trapping, either. Free of that structure, Symphony can instead explore an arc of creativity and personal struggle that’s almost dramatic in a fictional sense, though there’s nothing made up about the seriousness of either Jaouad’s plight or Batiste’s mandate to maintain his professional trajectory while the love of his life is admitted to a transplant ward. Instead, there’s inspiration to be found in the way they support each other, even when (often) apart. There’s a touching poignancy to their intimate wedding ceremony. And ultimately, there is the emotional reveal of Batiste’s symphony.

It’s a reveal that’s at once gorgeous and stirring, both giant and solitary in its setup. Batiste pounding arpeggios at his grand piano, the thrum of timpani drums uniting with Native American percussion, elements of sampling, and gospel vocals, and fleets of string instruments that find symbiosis with the brass – it’s effecting, historical, graceful, and powerful to see and hear over fifty musicians perform what Batiste had been making in his head and quietly plotting on piano and sheet music for the entirety of the documentary. “You ready to hit ‘em?” Jon Batiste asks his conductor with his natural charisma. “Let’s have fun with it.”   

Our Call: STREAM IT. Rousing, emotional, and searching, American Symphony is a testament to the power of creativity as a driver in all of our lives, and as a steadying agent against that terrible instance when adversity inevitably creeps in.

Johnny Loftus (@glennganges) is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift.

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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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