American Symphony (Matthew Heineman, 2023): United States

Reviewed by Mia Velazquez at the Santa Barbara Film Festival 2024.

The biographical documentary and musical drama, “American Symphony,” explores a year in the life of composer/musician Jon Batiste. Batiste grew up in New Orleans surrounded by musical influences, primarily from his parents, and he also attended The Julliard School in New York. Later, he was chosen to be the musical director on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, which started his rise to fame. Batiste explains that “American Symphony” was originally a documentary to record his dream to compose and create a symphony that  represented the true American experience and the rich diversity in our nation. The film was released on August 31, 2023 at the Telluride Film Festival and is now on Netflix. The director and camera man was Matthew Heineman and it was considered for Best Documentary Feature Musical.

While filming Batiste writing and creating the symphony, many unexpected and challenging events occurred in his life. The same week that Jon was nominated for 11 Grammy awards, his wife, author Suleika Jaouad, learned that her Leukemia had returned. It was a shocking contrast of the joys and tragedies of life, and the documentary evolved into a much more complex and emotional film. The contrasts or contradictions of the highs and lows in Bastiste’s life were shown in his great achievements (Batiste won 5 Grammy awards), while he and his wife struggled with the anxiety and fear of her life threatening illness.

In his Q and A interview with Roger Durling at the Arlington Theatre, Batiste stated that he has learned the highs and lows of life do not just happen at different periods of our lives, but they are constantly present in all of our lives. Batiste’s American Symphony concert at Carnegie Hall was a huge success, and it brought great cultural and musical diversity to the classical symphony hall. The symphony celebrated the diversity that makes up the true American experience. There are many parallels between “American Symphony” and “Maestro” with Bradley Cooper playing Leonard Bernstein. Both musicians/composers are musical geniuses who conducted their first symphonies at Carnegie Hall. As well, both composers struggled with being accepted as either a Jewish conductor or an African American musician in the classical music world.  Also, both had wives who suffered with cancer and these personal challenges impacted both musicians’ lives and their music. Thankfully, Batiste’s wife is in remission from her Leukemia and hopefully recovering and healing. Jon Batiste has also been nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song for his new song, “It Never Went Away,” from “American Symphony.”  I truly hope he is awarded the Oscar next month.

“American Symphony” is an insightful documentary about how art, music, and love are always changing, evolving, and inspiring us to live our best lives. Batiste shared that his song, “It Never Went Away,” is describing things that never leave us, like the people we love and our faith in God.   “American Symphony” provides an inspirational and emotional view into Jon Batiste’s life, helping us understand the motivation and love behind his beautiful music.


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