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.
THE HOLDOVERS Stars Paul Giamatti, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, and Dominic Sessa Talk Alexander Payne's Holiday Dramedy
By Sean Boelman
The Holdovers is the latest film from filmmaker Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants), and stars Paul Giamatti as a boarding school teacher who gets stuck over the winter holidays with one of his dejected students (Dominic Sessa) and the school’s cook (Da’Vine Joy Randolph)
One of the biggest highlights of the film was the chemistry between the three leads. In a press conference with the trio and director Alexander Payne, they were asked how they worked to build this chemistry on set. This is what Giamatti had to say: “We had time. You always make time. I mean, when I’ve worked with [Payne] before, [he] make[s] time. So, we had a couple weeks to sorta get to know each other. I remember that specifically on Sideways, we had more time probably. But any time is more than you usually get.”
Randolph adds, “For this project, let’s say we had three weeks in which we were doing table reads and text analysis and working stuff out. Because people have been asking this question about what was improvised and what wasn’t. I think that was very unique, to me at least, that Alexander did, was that there was room for that, but we did it at the early phase of the table read session. So then it was kinda like this is our collective, agreed upon script, and that we stuck to. But the fact that we had that time to do that, I haven’t had that in a very, very long time.”
“It was this little group of the three of us. It felt like a little chamber play thing sometimes,” Giamatti concludes.
However, even more impressive is that Sessa, who has never had a screen credit prior to The Holdovers — even in short films — is able to hold his own against the two more experienced performers.
This is what he had to say about the prospect of working on Payne’s latest film with his acclaimed co-stars: “I mean, yeah. I just didn’t know what these people were gonna be like to me beforehand. These are celebrities to me, you know? So, I don’t know if they go back to their trailers and plug themselves back in or whatever.”
He adds, “I genuinely could not have asked for better people to do this with for the first time around. Everyone was so down to earth, grounded, and confident in what they were bringing, but also confident in what I was able to bring, too. Like, you guys really, genuinely trusted me in my creative process, my artistry, and that’s all I really could’ve asked for the first time.”
If his performance in The Holdovers is any indication, we can look forward to seeing even more great things in the future from Sessa.
The Holdovers hits VOD on November 28.