Seeking out the

5000 greatest films

in a century of cinema

American Symphony

Directed by Matthew Heineman
Produced by Matthew Heineman, Lauren Domino, and Joedan Okun
With: Jon Batiste, and Suleika Jaouad
Cinematography: Matthew Heineman, Clair Popkin, Tony Hardmon, and Thorsten Thielow
Editing: Matthew Heineman, Sammy Dane, Jim Hession, and Fernando Villegas
Music: Jon Batiste
Runtime: 104 min
Release Date: 29 November 2023
Aspect Ratio: 2.39 : 1
Color: Color

Few movies have truly captured and conveyed the creative process to the layman viewer. American Symphony is the latest to make this attempt and not succeed all that well. There's a scene near the middle that comes close and genuinely conveys the magic of how something artful, poetic, or mystical gets discovered. But, like most moments in this picture, it's quickly jettisoned as we're on to the next scene. There's intentionality behind the jumpy, overcrowded aesthetic of this latest documentary from Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land, City of Ghosts, A Private War, The First Wave). He's conveying an unimaginably intense year in the crowded life of musician, singer, songwriter, bandleader, composer, and TV personality Jon Batiste.

Heineman's film charts the career of this talented multi-instrumentalist, who grew up in New Orleans, studied classical music at Julliard, put together and fronted his unusual band, Stay Human, and became the musical director on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert when that program launched in 2015. When we meet Batiste, he's just been nominated for 11 Grammy Awards in one year over five or six different styles of music. He's also attempting to write his first symphony, for which he intends to represent every form of American music of the last few centuries. And during all this, his wife is struggling with a resurgence of leukemia and undergoing extensive treatments and hospital stays. There's a lot of life being lived here, but Heineman doesn't focus on any one aspect long enough for the viewer to appreciate any of it fully. In fact, even though Batiste and his wife, Suleika Jaouad, are executive producers on this film, we often feel like we're intruding on their privacy.

Batiste is never not conscious of the many cameras on him and seems to think he needs to fill each empty space with something of meaning. Thus, we get a lot of him speaking platitudes to friends, colleagues, interviewers, fans, and in voice-over, where just watching him sit in silence might have provided more meaningful insight. He addresses this during one key moment while explaining to an interviewer how he, like many African-American performers, is frequently expected to don the mask of the grinning song-and-dance-man. We see him working with a range of musicians, but it's difficult to grasp the rhyme and reason in his scattered process of "finding" the music. The most moving scenes are those of Batiste and Jaouad at home and in the hospital as he attempts to support her through her painful procedures and as she takes vicarious delight in his many successes—offset with notes of regret that she can't be there to experience much of it with him.

Heineman shoots the whole film in extreme close-ups, and his choice of widescreen format makes these tight shots feel even more restrictive. Few scenes have a beginning, middle, and end. Instead, the film is a collection of scene fragments, ideas, and emotions. Perhaps this is meant to parallel the magnum opus Batiste is attempting to compose as the clock ticks down toward the pre-set date of its Carnegie Hall premiere. How much this artist succeeds in wrapping the "entire musical diaspora" into one night of music is left for us to judge at the film's climax.

Twitter Capsule:

Matthew Heineman's latest documentary chronicles an unimaginably intense year in the crowded life of musician Jon Batiste as he creates his first symphony while supporting his wife as she deals with a resurgence of leukemia.