A Review of Jon Batiste’s Netflix Documentary, “American Symphony”

‘American Symphony’ is a Netflix documentary starring Grammy-winning singer-songwriter, composer, and multi-instrumentalist Jon Batiste and his wife, Suleika Jaouad, author of the New York Times Best Seller ‘Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted.’ The film centers on the ups and downs of their lives and how they beautifully use art to get through some of the most challenging parts of their lives.

Directed by Academy Award-winning director Matthew Heineman, ‘American Symphony’ highlights the achievements of the maestro and Julliard alumni, Batiste. It opens with Jon playing his iconic melodica in the winter snow. We see him preparing for his original symphony – ‘American Symphony,’ which was going to be a one-night-only presentation at the iconic Carnegie Hall in New York City. Jon intended to make a 4 movement, 40-minute piece of work for his original symphony.

“What we love about music is not that it sounds good but what we love about music is that it sounds inevitable. It’s playing the thing that we all know is unfolding whether we want to accept it or not,” says Jon in the documentary. The New Orleans-born star formed the group Stay Human, and they would play from the streets to the subway train. Soon, they caught the attention of big names like Lenny Kravitz, as he made appearances at some of their performances. The group even recorded their ‘MY N.Y.’ album on the NYC Subway.

Jon’s immense talent has landed him performances in different countries. Along with Stay Human, he was announced as the house band on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2015 and has shared the stage with renowned celebrities. He has also rolled out solo albums, and his 2021 album ‘WE ARE’ was crowned the ‘Album of the Year’ title at the 64th Annual Grammy Awards. Sadly, tragedy struck the family, and the artist’s 11 nominations at the Grammy Awards (the most nominated artist that year) were announced the same day as his wife Suleika’s first day of chemotherapy.

The ‘FREEDOM’ singer ended up taking 5 Grammy wins home, including Album of the Year, beating out fellow nominees Kanye West, Billie Eilish, Lil Nas X, Olivia Rodrigo, H.E.R., Taylor Swift, Doja Cat, Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga, and Justin Bieber, as well as a Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for Pixar’s 2020 film ‘Soul.’ His nominations came across categories including jazz, contemporary classical composition, R&B, American Roots, music video, and Record of the Year.

“I just don’t like being categorized as anything. People often think there’s one or two ideas of what a Black creative should be doing and because people are so used to seeing those specific narratives then when they see something else, it has to be dumbed down for them to receive it. The levels of our achievements are diminished,” states Jon in ‘American Symphony.’

A Still from the trailer of ‘American Symphony’ on YouTube

While Jon delivered a spectacular performance at the Grammys and was winning one of the most coveted awards in music, Suleika was going through her second bone marrow transplant. Jon also opens up about his struggle with anxiety and panic attacks in recent years.

Jon Batiste is known to be a jolly person, but behind the enthusiasm and smile lies the pain and sadness that he feels for his wife. The spouses put their all into their respective art – Batiste with his music and Jaouad with her art. It is a medium that can help you cope with the trying times in your life and they have used this time to be creative.

At age 22, Jaouad was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. She wrote about it in a column for The New York Times in 2012. Unfortunately, after nearly a decade of going into remission, the cancer returned in 2021. The Netflix documentary surprisingly takes us to the hospital room and is up close and personal as Jon and Suleika speak to the doctors. We also see Batiste talking to his therapist in his bedroom whilst lying on his bed during one of those moments where you feel like you’re lost.

A Still from the trailer of ‘American Symphony’ on YouTube

In a heartwarming segment, the documentary, which has been produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, also gives us a peek into Jon and Suleika’s private wedding ceremony. We watch the two exchange their vows in their home, where the couple also talk about how they first met. The two met as teenagers, and after being together for years, they decided to tie the knot in 2022 in their living room.

What was once meant to be a documentary centering around Jon’s creative process in the days leading up to his one-night-only concert showcasing his original symphony titled ‘American Symphony’ became a film that also showed us how one can transform all the pain they’re enduring into something so beautiful and powerful with resilience and tenacity.

The documentary feels very personal, with the director taking us to the hospital, their bedroom, and even a spectacular view of his Grammy performance. ‘American Symphony’ takes us back to when Jon began ideating the symphony, playing the piano, and working alongside musicians and a conductor to put it all together.

A 21-track record titled ‘World Music Radio’ by Jon arrived this August, featuring Lana Del Rey, rapper and singer JID, Lil Wayne, Leigh-Anne, and more. Batiste has received six Grammy nods this year, including Album Of The Year for ‘World Music Radio,’ Record Of The Year, Best American Roots Performance, and Song Of The Year. He was also featured on Lana Del Rey’s latest album ‘Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd’ on the track ‘Candy Necklace.’ The duo is also up for a Best Pop Duo/Group Performance Grammy award for the track. Jon has also released ‘It Never Went Away’ from the Netflix documentary ‘American Symphony.’

The singer is set to embark on a ‘Jon Batiste Uneasy Tour’ spanning two months with stops in San Francisco, Miami, Toronto, Boston, Seattle, Chicago, and more in North America. The tour commences on February 16 in Portland and concludes at Miramar Beach in Florida on April 27.

‘American Symphony’ is an emotional and heartbreaking documentary that sees Jon Batiste and Suleika Jaouad at the height of Batiste’s career while also struggling with Jaouad’s cancer. It is a testament to how art can help us channel our emotions, work through our difficulties and sorrows, and also become a great coping mechanism that assists us in achieving our goals even in the face of adversity.

American Symphony’ is now streaming on Netflix.

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