In 2021, when Jon Batiste received as many as eleven Grammy award nominations, a lot of articles came out about the man. Some of them hailed him as a legend for achieving such a feat; some compared him with the likes of someone as huge as Taylor Swift; and then some appeared salty about Batiste getting nominated for a classical song. The reason for the latter was Batiste not being a conventional classical musician, per se. In Netflix’s American Symphony, we have a scene where Batiste reads out all those articles in a tone of mockery. The scene cuts to a toilet door, and we hear Batiste still making fun of the articles. That scene alone speaks volumes about the documentary, which is inarguably one of the best that has come out of the Netflix stable this year. When I dissect a film under the critic’s lens’, I never care about what genre it is from. All I care about is how good, bad, or ugly the film is. However, some critics choose to adhere to the genre spectrum, which in a way limits their perspectives. That way, criticisms come off as “there’s not much thrill in the thriller,” “Where is the fun in this comedy movie?” etcetera, etcetera. Very recently, David Fincher’s The Killer has been a victim of this approach. The film, which was marketed as a hitman thriller, was clearly a morbid social commentary masquerading as a film about the life of a contract killer. But a lot of critics failed to see through it and ended up slandering it mercilessly.
I am not deviating from the topic, by the way. We are talking about American Symphony here. But the reason I am being so articulate about that one scene is because I haven’t come across anything of late that resonates quite this much with my idea of art being free of the constraints of genre. And it’s not just that one scene. The “symphony” here happens to be Batiste’s attempt at creating a single piece of music that blends many genres and represents the spirit of the whole of America. Throughout the documentary, we see Batiste going hard at it, often doubting himself, and eventually pulling it off. It is an inspiring journey, and watching it unfold is a riveting experience, especially when you think about the fact that what you are watching on screen is all real and none of it is scripted.
But American Symphony is not just about Batiste and his creation of a piece of music that will change the world. It is as much about his fiancée and later wife, American writer Suleika Jaouad. In life, sometimes you are dealt a real bad hand. On the very same day Batiste makes the news for his record eleven Grammy nominations, Suleika’s cancer recurs after a decade. Suleika was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia back in 2011, and despite having a medical verdict that gave her only about a 35 percent chance of survival, she managed to beat cancer. She followed that by writing an Emmy-winning column titled Life, Interrupted, where she extensively talked about her whole experience and the treatment she underwent, which inspired millions of cancer sufferers. The return of her cancer at the most unexpected time is a huge setback for Suleika, but the way she handles it is nothing short of remarkable.
We see Jon and Suleika, accepting their fate as it is and moving on with their lives as normally as possible. Suleika takes Jon sledding for the first time, tells the audience that Jon appears to be methodical and safe outside but a thrill-seeker inside, and then throws a snowball at him. She jokes about having leukemia, which gives her a free pass on a lot of things. The two of them dance through the hospital corridor while Suleika is going for her bone marrow transplantation. On the hospital bed, Suleika gets overwhelmed by the orchestra music Jon is playing in the background to soothe her, and Jon immediately changes it to other things and then starts to play for her by himself. All of these, much separated from Jon’s musical journey toward excellence, add a personal angle to the already brilliant documentary. That could only happen because director Matthew Heineman got unfiltered access to the couple’s personal lives. The audience not only gets to know what Jon and Suleika were going through during this deeply troubling period of their lives, they also get to feel it by watching all the real-time footage. The usual technique of putting the person in front of the camera to narrate their story is not used here, which I thought was a very wise decision. Instead, we have Jon narrating the experience while we are watching it on screen. This approach makes American Symphony very cinematic, which, in my opinion, is a great achievement. On the other hand, giving the director complete access to the subjects has quietly become a signature style of documentary filmmaking. Very recently, the Beckham documentary series greatly benefited from this.
Coming back to American Symphony, what sets it apart from other documentaries is the way it blends two very different kinds of stories, one of success and one of struggle, of two people who happen to be in love. And by doing that, it shows how art and love can actually get past every obstacle in life. There is a moment when Batiste is speaking to this woman on the phone, who is presumably his therapist, and we see him breaking down as the stress of balancing everything has taken a toll on him. This only makes American Symphony more humane. My only qualms about this otherwise perfect documentary would be not fully getting to witness the final concert of Batiste, but that is a creative decision I can accept. I believe I have made it abundantly clear that American Symphony is one of the best documentaries of the year. Whether or not you know Batiste or have heard his music, you should not think twice before giving this one a watch. You would be missing out a lot if you didn’t see it.