Review: American Symphony Charts An Incredible, Difficult Year as Jon Batiste Creates a New Work of Art

Some people have busier than normal years, and then there’s musician Jon Batiste’s 2022. Simultaneously, Batiste was the most celebrated artist of the year—he earned 11 Grammy nominations including Album of the Year (which he won, along with four other trophies that night)—and discovered that his partner (and soon to be wife), best-selling author Suleika Jaouad's long-dormant leukemia had returned, requiring a second (and more dangerous) bone marrow transplant and potentially a lifetime of chemotherapy. In that same 12 months, Batiste was also composing an original symphony, which he planned to debut at Carnegie Hall. With all of these things occupying his time, he ultimately needed to leave his steady employment as the leader of late-night host Stephen Colbert’s house band, Stay Human.

Directed by Academy Award-nominated and Emmy Award-winning Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land, The First Wave, Retrograde, Tiger), American Symphony (also the name of Batiste's composition) is a soaring, sometimes exhausting documentary tracing the journeys of two gifted artists at a time in their lives where they needed the creative process to feel and stay alive, alongside their undeniable love for each other. I’ve never seen two people go through more in a single year than these two, and the way they handle the pressure along with the attention is impressive, even at their lowest moments (which were often experienced in close proximity to the highest highs).

But the film’s true focus is on Batiste’s symphonic composition, which he imagined as a piece of music that would embody several forms of music from North America and begin with the concept: What if symphonic music didn’t exist until this year? What would it sound like? The result is a reworking of classical traditions, but it also allows us into Batiste’s creative process, very often beginning with him asking individual musicians “How did that sound to you?” 

The scoring isn't simply an exercise of a composer scribbling down notes on paper; it involves improvisation, blending seemingly unblendable music styles, and coming up with something that defies description. Even the night of the performance is fraught with technical problems, but Batiste is such a pro that he manages to perform solo on his piano until the issue is dealt with, further expanding his composition with many in the audience unaware anything had gone wrong.

American Symphony is an intimate journey through a relationship and the history of American music, with bits of Jaouad’s writing sprinkled in for even more depth into what these two went through. Lest you think the film is an exercise in sadness, it’s also front-loaded with humor, uplifting moments, and a great deal of personality (although Batiste often speaks in inspirational quotes, rather than truly examining his feelings). I remember wondering when Batiste left Colbert’s show (for reasons that weren’t fully explained at the time) if we’d ever find out what was going on with him. Little did I know that a camera crew would capture this emotional journey so beautifully and thoroughly.

The film begins streaming on Netflix on Wednesday, November 29.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.