American Symphony (2023)

Batiste profile ends in tone-deaf ‘Symphony’

I admire the fearless, in-the-moment documentaries crafted by Matthew Heineman. With no regard for his own safety, the ballsy director repeatedly thrusts himself into the fire, whether it’s embedding with drug lords in “Cartel Land,” following citizen journalists inside war-torn Raqqa in “City of Ghosts,” or joining first responders on the frontlines during the early days of COVID-19 in “The First Wave.” The results are never less than enlightening as they grippingly take us to places few other filmmakers would dare venture.

Perhaps it’s that absence of constant danger that hinders his lesser works, especially his hagiographic profiles of musicians such as J Balvin in “The Boy from Medellin” and his latest fawn-fest, “American Symphony,” in which he gets up close and too personal with multi-Grammy-winning keyboardist Jon Batiste. While the Netflix offering is nowhere near as sluggish as “Medellin,” it suffers from the same lack of focus, as he tails Batiste like a lost puppy during the first nine months of 2022, an eventful year in which the former bandleader on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” experienced exhilarating highs and excruciating lows, culminating in the debut of his opus, “American Symphony,” at Carnegie Hall.

The original plan was for Heineman to chronicle Batiste’s creative process in composing, arranging and performing his ambitious showpiece. But along the way, life threw Batiste a curveball when his longtime partner – and fellow musician – Suleika Jaouad suffered a recurrence of her long-dormant leukemia. Suddenly, Heineman finds himself at a crossroads. Should he continue on his original trek of sticking to the music? Or, should he focus on the long, arduous path on which Batiste and Jaouad were about to embark?

Unfortunately, Heineman opted for both, resulting in a film that never quite coalesces, as it chaotically vacillates between Batiste’s professional and personal lives. Didn’t Heineman recognize that the more compelling story is the couple’s fight against death? The devastating news obliterates any interest we might have had in Batiste’s musical journey, as our empathy immediately shifts to Jaouad and the fortitude and courage she displays in her monthslong struggle to stay alive.

Out of blindness or stubbornness, Heineman just won’t relinquish his initial plan to make “American Symphony” about the artist and his music. Batiste might be creating the equivalent of Beethoven’s Ninth, but compared to the human drama unfolding back home and in the hospital it feels woefully insignificant.

The end product is a film that grabs us by the throat when we’re with Jaouad and bores us to tears when we’re subjected to multiple scenes of Batiste being reminded how great he is as an artist.

Me, I wanted to know everything about Jaouad: the source of her incredible bravery; and the will she summons to lay bare her emotions in her New York Times column, “Life, Interrupted.” As a fellow cancer survivor, I was glued to her every word, especially when she’s blindsided by the one-two punch of learning she will need a second bone-marrow transplant, and later, the wrenching news that she may require lifelong chemo treatment.

After witnessing such heartbreak, how is it possible to care a lick about music, let alone about how Jaouad’s illness is affecting Batiste? What about her? I found this misdirected focus irritating. But not as infuriating as Batiste’s failure to mention Jaouad in his acceptance speech after his “We Are” is named Best Album at the 2022 Grammys. This proves even more irksome when upon his return to New York, Jaouad is rushed back to the hospital, possibly for the last time.

It was at this point that I lost all concern for Batiste and his contextually petty problems with constructing his symphony while the “love of his life” lies dying in a cold, sterile hospital room. I kept asking myself, “Why is he even still working? Why isn’t he at the constant side of a frightened, bedridden Jaouad? It comes off as selfish and insensitive. Did Heineman not see this?

Clearly, Batiste is a larger-than-life character who approaches life with a ferocity and undaunted positivity toward everything and everyone, including a white shoeshine who initially refuses to buff Batiste’s loafers – until he realizes the potential customer is the same dude on the front page of The Los Angeles Times celebrating five Grammy wins the night before.

Racism? Possibly. But, again, the film doesn’t really address whatever prejudice Batiste may have encountered in his ascent from son of respected New Orleans musician, Michael Batiste, to masters graduate of Julliard, where he and his band, Stay Human, became hugely popular buskers, to his seven-year reign as Colbert’s musical director. This is what we crave, but Heineman seems intent on convincing us of what is already obvious. That being that Batiste is a rare and charismatic talent.

What we want to know is how this came to be. By the end of “American Symphony,” I felt like I learned very little about the man. Worse, I learned even less about Jaouad, the unintentional star of a movie about her now husband, Batiste. She steals the film right out from under him, to the extent I kept wondering why the documentary wasn’t about her. And you lament that Heineman didn’t think likewise.

Movie review

American Symphony

Rated: PG-13 for language

Featuring: Jon Batiste and Suleika Jaouad

Director: Matthew Heineman

Runtime: 100 minutes

Where: On Netflix

Grade: C+

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