2022 was a momentous year for musician Jon Batiste. While still the official bandleader of “The Late Show” hosted by Stephen Colbert until August of that year, Batiste had a plethora of other mind-boggling experiences dominating his life.
Filmmaker Matthew Heineman spent a year writing, shooting and editing his biographical documentary, AMERICAN SYMPHONY, detailing Batiste’s journey through this chaotic time. At the beginning of 2022, Jon received 11 Grammy nominations --- the most by any artist that year --- including Album of the Year.
Tragically the excitement of those noms was overshadowed by his wife’s, Suleika Jaouad, battle with leukemia, which had returned after a 10-year period. In need of a bone marrow transplant, Suleika remains incredibly supportive of her husband, while Jon does a herculean job of being present for Suleika.
And --- to top if off --- Batiste is working on composing a symphony, entitled ‘American Symphony’, which is slated to be performed at Carnegie Hall on September 22, 2022. Such pressure might crush another creative soul, but Batiste seems to revel in the turmoil with the help of a few other very dedicated individuals.
AMERICAN SYMPHONY isn’t all pain and suffering. Quite the contrary, actually. Heineman also focuses on Jon and Suleika’s home life, particularly at an idyllic old farmhouse where Suleika takes Jon sledding for his first time. Heineman also captures Batiste’s seemingly endless energy when performing, and his elation when his ideas informing his music come alive.
The culmination of Heineman’s doc is the performance of ‘American Symphony’ at Carnegie Hall. Suleika is well enough to attend, Colbert and other notables are in the house. Batiste’s tumultuous year is winding down --- and what a magnificent, draining, hopeful, accomplished year it has been. AMERICAN SYMPHONY is a triumph for both Heineman and Batiste.
Opinion: See It Now!
We always knew that Stephen Colbert is a genius at comedy, satire and political commentary. After watching the new documentary AMERICAN SYMPHONY about his former bandleader Jon Batiste, we can now add amazing judge of talent to his list.
Directed by Oscar nominee Matthew Heineman, AMERICAN SYMPHONY is an intimate look at the highs and lows of the multi-talented Batiste in 2022. He sings, he dances --- and of course when we watch his long, slender fingers sliding over the piano keys, it is impossible to look away. His dance routine at the Grammys is fantastic.
The film contrasts the exhilaration of Batiste winning five Grammys in 2022 --- including Album of the Year --- versus his extreme depression, sadness and dread of the future regarding his wife Suleika’s battle with leukemia. She had a 10-year period of remission but then the cancer returned.
We witness the good times, for instance, when they are seen sledding together. Her initial release from the hospital is greeted by cheering workers. Her husband wins the music awards but almost immediately she is back in a hospital bed. Suleika, incidentally, is an executive producer on AMERICAN SYMPHONY. She is an accomplished writer and motivational speaker.
Batiste’s performance at Carnegie Hall is dramatically interrupted by a loss of power on stage, and at one point in front of another audience, he dedicates his next song to Suleika, then pauses for what seems like an eternity. And the silence in the room is almost eerie until he resumes.
Batiste winds up the documentary playing a frenetic, almost violent, session on the keyboard as if he’s taking out all his frustration and anger about his wife’s condition. We leave this film feeling as though we know Jon Batiste on a personal level, not just as Colbert’s former bandleader and multiple Grammy winner.
Nearly a score of cameramen are responsible for the filming of AMERICAN SYMPHONY, and the editing by Heineman and three cohorts --- Sammy Dane, Jim Hession and Fernando Villegas --- is remarkable. It’s a strong achievement in documentary filmmaking.
Opinion: See It Now!