American Symphony tries to portray renowned musician Jon Batiste’s personal hardships and sorrows during the most turbulent, successful time of his career.
The biggest takeaway that I managed to extract from Netflix’s documentary film American Symphony is that Jon Batiste’s infectious smile and laugh are a brightening gift to the music industry.
The film primarily follows Jon Batiste as he navigates composing his very first symphony during an emotional period of his marriage with Suleika Jaouad, who is undergoing leukemia treatment. We trace the building blocks of Batiste’s symphony alongside his experience at the 2022 Grammy Awards, where he achieves a legendary career milestone. In the aftermath of his successes, Batiste falls under the scrutiny of the public eye, putting to the test his deep love for the craft and for his partner.
Without relying on overdramatization, American Symphony is infused with humanity on every level of Batiste’s story: the creative process of a genius musician, his rise in the spotlight, his thought process and beliefs, and, most importantly, his relationship with Suleika.
The documentary shows that extreme physical intimacy is not a necessity in expressing how much love these two human beings have for each other, how a deep connection works on levels that are not always visible to the eye. Throughout the film’s runtime, we get a sense of how pure and spiritual their love remains behind closed curtains.
The camera feels like an invisible friend, supporting Batiste through an overwhelming high-stakes stage of his life, just being there as a presence and as a witness, observing interviews and meetings, hospital visits, phone therapy sessions, etc. It frames his fame and popularity as an obstacle rather than a blessing, a hurdle that only serves to hinder his artistry and his capacity to care for loved ones at a time when they need him most.
Not knowing too much about the artist prior to watching, I formed a well-rounded idea of who Jon Batiste is and what he burns for. American Symphony is really just a medium to expose that – a medium to examine how music flows through this man’s body and soul uninterruptedly.
The authenticity he carries within is not entirely reflected in the authenticity of the documentary, which I must say is a confusing discrepancy to observe. At times, the structure and editing feel like they indulge in the standard formulas musician documentaries usually follow, making little to no improvements on a genre that’s saturated with stories like Batiste’s. Fortunately, his charisma shines through, making it easy to overlook the unoriginal, over-measured execution.
Emotions fly freely through Batiste’s body and his work, evidently. That’s why they successfully transgress the somewhat faulty storytelling, but the narrative constructed in the editing room that’s supposed to expand on Jon Batiste at his most raw and vulnerable ends up not doing him justice, not giving his story the sensitivity it deserved to be handled with from the other end.
Batiste’s not to blame for this, nor is his wife. Their continuous battle with Suleika’s leukemia holds the essence of American Symphony, both as a documentary and as a musical body of work. However, in the attempts of the film to craft a complete portrait of an extraordinary musician, we’re denied the nuances of what is, at its core, a tumultuous stage in an ordinary person’s life with a lot of pressure on his shoulders. The emotional themes feel touched upon but untapped into, which leads to a lack of full authenticity.It’s tough to pinpoint whether American Symphony accomplishes the objective it seeks out to, but one thing is for certain: it provides a flash into the inner workings of one of the greats. It’s a testament to what happens when you devote your entire being, tirelessly, to music and to family.
American Symphony is now available to watch on Netflix.