Matthew Heineman's documentary, AMERICAN SYMPHONY, is an earnest, intimate picture of professional success contrasted with private pain. Its subjects are the incredibly talented musician Jon Batiste, and his equally talented wife, the musician, author and artist Suleika Jaouad. Heineman follows them in a monumental year, when Batiste wins multiple Grammys both for his pop album but also for scoring a movie, and when he is writing a symphony combining classical, jazz and folk music to be played at Carnegie Hall. But amidst all of this commercial success, his wife Suleika suffers a relapse from leukaemia, and has to endure a second risky bone marrow transplant, which involves great pain but also isolation.
Heineman has incredible access: we are with Suleika as she receives her transplant, and in bed with Batiste as he wearily offloads to his therapist, head under a pillow, like a frightened child. We delight in their evident joyous love and incredible creativity. And we suffer their separation and pain, especially as Suleika confronts potentially having to be on chemo for the rest of her life.
The problem with the film is that once it establishes the initial set-up it doesn't really move. The couple are in the statis of their respective success and suffering. I felt the film lacked momentum or evolution. I also felt that where it might have become more gritty it flirted with but did not embrace controversy. At one point Batiste gives an interview where he discusses how black artists are constrained by a history of being expected to act a certain, garish, simplistic, way. He uses a particular word, maybe as offensive as the N-word, to describe their activities of old and how that influences current perceptions. I wanted to explore that more. But this isn't that film, sadly.
AMERICAN SYMPHONY is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 104 minutes. It played Telluride 2023 and will be released on Netflix on November 29th.