AMERICAN SYMPHONY Subjects Jon Batiste and Suleika Jaouad and Director Matthew Heineman Talk the Moving Documentary
By Sean Boelman
American Symphony is a new documentary following musician Jon Batiste and his wife, writer Suleika Jaouad. Although the film might have started with the intention of following Batiste as he composed his latest work, its focus shifts when Jaouad learns her cancer has come out of remission. The result is a wonderfully emotional documentary in many unexpected ways.
In a recent press conference, Batiste, Jaouad, and director Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land, The First Wave) discuss their artistic process and some of the key takeaways they hope audiences have from the film.
Part of what makes American Symphony stand out from the mass of other music documentaries is that Heineman gets such an incredibly personal glimpse into the lives of his subjects. While Batiste and Jaouad are both acclaimed artists, and the film is about Batiste composing one of his most ambitious and audacious works yet, their creative processes are intertwined with their lives.
Batiste had this to say about how his work reflects the experiences he has had in his life:
“We were talking a lot about synthesis and the creative process when I’m with the musicians, and I’m talking about how to synthesize all these things and to create a new sound, a new approach, really my own approach. I think about life in that way. And in this time, you can’t be in the present without having some form of integrative synthesizing thought. You’re bringing it all together. You’re using this in that and that in this. That’s inspiring this piece, and this piece is inspiring how you show up for your wife. And this is inspiring the Grammy’s performance. And that all becomes one. To me, that was what happened in this moment, and that’s typically what I’m doing anyway, but it was on hyper-drive in this seven-month period. How do I take everything that’s happening and integrate it all into one? Because that’s the only way I’m gonna be able to be present in all of it effectively and move forward and keep the momentum going.”
Indeed, one of the most moving things Batiste says in the film is “music comes from life experiences.” When asked if he thought this wisdom rings true in other mediums of art, including film, this is what Heineman had to say:
“I hope, if there's nothing else that comes out of this movie, it’s that life imitates art imitates life. It's inseparable, especially with Jon and Suleika. They feed each other, both as a couple in their lives and their music. I think one of the moments in the film that really personifies that is when John dedicates the songs to Suleika, and he pauses for 90-100 seconds or so. And in that moment, he writes a novella for us about what he's feeling. The way he puts his left hand and then the right hand, and obviously, there's so much weight that he's carrying with him. He’s obviously worried about Suleika and trying to sort of transfer that from wherever he’s channeling his energy into his hands and into that moment. So I think that really highlights the duality that exists between their experiences and their music.”
American Symphony is now streaming on Netflix.