Suleika Jaouad and Jon Batiste in the Netflix documentary "American Symphony."
Professional triumph and personal turmoil come together somewhat awkwardly in “American Symphony,” an extraordinarily intimate documentary that follows Jon Batiste as his musical career peaks while his life partner Suleika Jaouad undergoes treatment for cancer. At times harrowing, often uplifting, the two chords alternately clash and blend, without fully penetrating Batiste’s protective shell.
The symphony in question refers to Batiste’s artistry in crafting what amounts to a new kind of musical approach, mixing styles, and going behind the scenes as he prepares for a major concert at Carnegie Hall. Along the way there’s his victorious night at last year’s Grammys, as well as glimpses of his sensitivity to criticism from those who don’t fully grasp what he’s trying to achieve.
All that plays out, however, against the backdrop of Batiste and Jaouad’s relationship, her cancer diagnosis and the toll exacted by her treatment, leaving both to exult in his successes while experiencing apprehension and complications at every turn.
Directed by Matthew Heineman, whose access to the couple literally includes having a camera there as they lie in bed together quietly talking (or silently reading the Bible), “American Symphony” certainly doesn’t suffer from a lack of detail. Still, Batiste gives the impression of someone who remains guarded in terms of his image, an understandable level of caution that imposes limitations on this sort of up-close-and-very-personal exercise.
Produced by, among others, the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions, “American Symphony” in some respects recalls the 1985 documentary about Sting’s first solo album, “Bring on the Night,” in its exploration of the creative process. Jaouad’s health obviously brings a separate and emotional thread to the proceedings, in a way that’s relatable to anyone who has dealt with such illness, and especially the helplessness when it involves a loved one, while inevitably drawing the focus in another direction.
At the film’s core Heineman simultaneously seeks to celebrate Batiste’s artistry and the couple’s humanity, while pulling back the curtain a wee bit on the smiling personality viewers came to know both on Stephen Colbert’s show and via his music.
That said, “American Symphony” plays more like a series of snapshots than a complete picture — or perhaps more aptly, an unfinished symphony punctuated by lovely, graceful notes.
“American Symphony” premieres November 29 on Netflix.