‘American Symphony’ DOC NYC Film Review – A Story of Love, Music, and Passion

‘American Symphony’ DOC NYC Film Review – A Story of Love, Music, and Passion
American Symphony. Courtesy Netflix

Ecstasy and devastation sometimes overlap, when the highest point of a person’s life or career coincides with the lowest. It can be difficult to square those two contradictory things, and to be able to be fully present in the understandable joy of a moment when something truly miserable is occurring at the same time. American Symphony examines such a mystifying interaction, as celebrated musician Jon Batiste prepares to build a world-class musical performance just as his partner finds out that her cancer has returned.

This film’s title references what it is that Batiste has been tasked to create, a new take on one of the most classical forms of music to be performed at the legendary Carnegie Hall in New York City. But it also implies the incorporation of many different things in it, an apt metaphor for how Batiste must ground himself and necessarily include some of the pain he is experiencing in the piece of art that he is making. The film as a whole embraces that interesting connection, where any artist consciously or unconsciously writes themselves into a work to some degree.

American Symphony
Courtesy Netflix

American Symphony is an unexpected focus for Oscar-nominated documentarian Matthew Heineman. His past films include Cartel Land, City of Ghosts, and Retrograde, which examine crime and military conflicts. The First Wave was a heartfelt look at the medical personnel on the frontlines of the COVID-19 epidemic, but American Symphony represents something entirely different. It’s an intimate, passionate look at the bond between two people and the way that transforms itself into art. Heineman’s abilities were never in doubt, but this is a startling pivot that he executes very well, proving himself more than capable of exploring a range of subjects.

Audiences will surely be familiar with Batiste as an artist, and this film offers a deep dive into his psyche and the way that he works. Fortunately, it won’t appeal only to those who know him or have an interest in music, and his profession almost feels incidental to the crux of the film. This is a human story about two people who care deeply about each other, and how one of them expresses that through his art form, which happens to be quite public and large in scope. The contrast of the intimacy of that dynamic and the grandeur of his project is hardly irrelevant to the impact of this film.

American Symphony
Courtesy Netflix

Batiste, who earned a whopping eleven Grammy nominations in 2022, winning five, including for Album of the Year, is a charismatic personality whose talents extend far beyond his music. Hearing him talk about the joy of being nominated for something he feels so passionate about is enough to make it worth watching an entire film about him, and to see a more vulnerable side of him as he cares for his partner, Suleika Jaouad, while she undergoes cancer treatment, adds more layers to his already inviting personality.

For all the portraits of musicians who have achieved worldwide fame that convey exceptional ability matched by an equal share of egotism, that’s wonderfully absent in this winning and heartfelt showcase. Batiste and Jaouad are open and welcoming to the camera, eagerly sharing of themselves, even in difficult moments, with Heineman as he lenses their story. It’s an affirming tribute to love and loss, and it’s remarkable to watch as Batiste manages to pour everything he has into this musical opus, conveying his feelings for one person into something that the whole world can experience and behold.

Grade: B+

Check out more of Abe Friedtanzer’s articles.

American Symphony is on the Features Short List at DOC NYC and will premiere on Netflix on November 29th.

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