A new documentary “American Symphony” tells the story of recording artist Jon Batiste and writer Suleika Jaouad. The Hollywood Reporter is now describing this documentary as the Oscar frontrunner.
“American Symphony” shows Batiste racking up an impressive 11 Grammys nominations while his wife Jaouad returns to chemotherapy for cancer treatment for her leukemia, which had been in remission for almost a decade, per NPR.
A Juilliard-trained musician, Batiste was part of the band “Stay Human.” Among his many achievements, he composed the music for Pixar’s movie “Soul” and has released several studio albums, including “We Are,” which won album of the year at the Grammys.
Jaouad is a writer well known for her Emmy Award-winning column in The New York Times called: “Life, Interrupted.” The column detailed her experience having cancer in her early 20s. She’s become an advocate for cancer research and has released a memoir titled “Between Two Kingdoms.”
Directed by Matthew Heineman, “American Symphony” debuted at the Telluride Film Festival. The documentary focuses on the relationship between Batiste and Jaouad as they have navigated their professional careers amid the return of Jaouad’s cancer.
“There are high notes, low notes and sections where both are in dramatic conflict,” Radheyan Simonpillai wrote about the documentary in The Guardian. “It’s all music for ‘American Symphony’ to harness.”
Producers Barack Obama and Michelle Obama said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, “The themes of resilience and love at the heart of ‘American Symphony’ resonate deeply with us — and we’re thrilled to bring the film into the Higher Ground family. Jon and Suleika’s journey of grace and strength echoes the experience of so many families who are forced to navigate the complications that surface when dreams meet adversity.”
In an interview with NPR, both Batiste and Jaouad spoke about how they were able to balance joy and heartbreak at the same time.
“I think it’s easy to fall into binary thinking, that we’re either happy or sad or sick or well. But the reality is that most of us exist somewhere in the messy middle,” Jaouad told NPR.
Batiste described what it felt like when he would be at the Grammys one day and the hospital the next. “It required that in order to move through all of the stimulus and all the demands of each of those moments, to be at the Grammys and to really show up, but also feeling torn because I wanna be with Suleika. You can’t be in both of those places simultaneously,” he said.
So far, the reviews for “American Symphony” have been positive. It’s received a 93% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
“For this warm and lovely film’s most natural audience, which will most likely be families struggling with illness, the documentary’s final inconclusiveness may feel like a feature, not a flaw,” Chris Willman wrote for Variety. “Music is forever, and so is chemo, in some cases. Holding those elements in balance is one way to create a symphony.”
The climax of the film is Batiste’s performance at Carnegie Hall. There he unveiled his own “American Symphony” in 2022, according to the Grammy’s website. Daniel Fienberg, who reviewed the film for The Hollywood Reporter, described the climax as unexpected.
“We don’t know the journey that the symphony took, but we know the journey that Batiste and Jaouad took, and there’s still an astonishing and effective release,” Fienberg wrote. “At one point, Jaouad praises Batiste for his ability to adapt and change, but you know she could be talking about herself, about Heineman, about the American spirit and about this oft-jubilant documentary.”
“American Symphony” is available to stream on Netflix.