There are times when a person's world unexpectedly shifts off its axis and everyone involved must struggle and find a new center of gravity. November 10, 2021 was a milestone day for Jon Batiste and his life partner, Suleika Jaouad. That morning, the acclaimed multi-instrumentalist and bandleader of The Last Show with Stephen Colbert learned he had been nominated for 11 Grammy Awards – including Album of the Year – for his sixth studio LP, We are. It was also in the morning that Jaouad, a New York Times best-selling author of her memoirs, Between Two Kingdomsbegan chemotherapy for acute myeloid leukemia, a blood and bone marrow cancer that resurfaced after more than a decade in remission.

Suleika Jaouad and Jon Batiste in 'American Symphony'

Netflix

The highs and lows of an extraordinary year in the couple's lives are captured by director Matthew Heineman in the Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary. American Symphony — in honor of the ambitious musical composition that Batiste would later premiere at Carnegie Hall. The story about how the couple navigates an unforeseen chapter in their lives unfolds in real time – cinema vérité style – as their star rises in the public eye, and they simultaneously fight a very private health battle, with love, hope, dignity, grace. and healing through shared passion for the creative arts. The documentary project emerged organically.

'The First Wave' Director Matthew Heineman

First Wave director Matthew Heineman

Michael Ori

“I contacted him to co-write the soundtrack for a documentary I made called The first wave, about the first four months of COVID in New York,” recalls Heineman. “Jon and I are having dinner one night later — a get-to-know-you kind of dinner, because we really didn't know each other that well — and he's telling me about an upcoming residency at Carnegie Hall, growing up with his acting American Symphony. And we both kind of turned to each other and were like, 'We should probably document this.' Then life intervened. And then, before we even started filming, the lens of the film had already changed.”

Because of his long-running show with Colbert (for which he now appears to be on an indefinite hiatus), being in front of a camera was second nature to Batiste. Jaouad, a writer and visual artist, was not so enthusiastic.

“Initially, Suleika didn't want to be part of the film and didn't want to be the 'unhealthy antidote' to Jon's success, which I completely understood,” says Heineman. “It took a lot of conversations and dialogue for her to feel comfortable with both my intentions and the practical reality of what filming would be like. So, more than any other film I've done, we were constantly in dialogue about where we are, how we're feeling, if it's okay to continue.”

Netflix

The cameras actually kept rolling, even in the most intimate moments, like when a worried Batiste lies in bed reading a Bible, or experiences a moment of emotional exhaustion on the phone with his therapist, or when Jaouad's chemotherapy session starts to bleed. There's also a dreamlike walk down the hospital hallway before the bone marrow transplant, when the two improvise a sweet dance, and she gingerly pirouettes as she tries not to get tangled in the IV hose. It's easy to imagine the two meeting as teenagers at the Juilliard School's summer music camp (she plays bass). They are friendly, but different in many ways. Jaouad articulates his feelings with well-chosen words and through his innocent watercolor paintings of giraffes and elephants. Batiste is less verbal, expressing himself through music; Her emotions sometimes take refuge behind her megawatt smile.

“This is the person you see in Colbert show – that person who is laughing, funny and enthusiastic. But there’s so much more to it,” says Heineman. “The duality of what we see publicly and the retreat from the private side was one of the many goals of making this film.”

The filming schedule for American Symphony was intense, with most of it centered on New York City, where the director and his protagonists reside. “We filmed every day, seven days a week, for seven to eight months – sometimes 14, 16, 18 hours a day. We had 1,500 hours of footage. It was a completely immersive experience into their lives. There were two other filmmakers and I filming. If Thor (Thorsten) or Tony (Hardmon) were shooting, I was usually in the other room, watching on the monitor. If I was shooting, I was often alone. We were doing the sound ourselves – a one-man band, with a very small footprint. It’s the only way to film so intimately in someone’s bedroom.”

Heineman was not in the room when Batiste and Jaouad first screened the documentary. “It was scary,” admits the filmmaker. “Suleika really wanted to watch the film alone. She did not remember large portions of that period based on the painkillers she was taking. And so for her, reliving and remembering moments that she didn't remember or had been pushed down on was incredibly emotional for her. Likewise with Jon. He obviously remembered all those moments. We all became quite close during this process.”

Suleika Jaouad in 'American Symphony'

Netflix

There are emotional moments in the film: when Baptiste performs a joyful version of his song “Freedom” at the 2022 Grammy Awards in Las Vegas, then emerges as the night's big winner with five trophies, the couple's February 2022 wedding, and the moment in which Jaouad discovers she is cancer-free and can join her husband at Carnegie Hall when he debuts his musical tour de force, American Symphony, one year after his diagnosis. There's even a happy ending to American Symphonythe documentary, which became an Oscar favorite after humble beginnings.

“We were completely rejected by every major distributor while we were making the film,” says Heineman. “So we made the film independently, eventually with the support of Mercury Studios. We went into Telluride without a distributor on board and are incredibly grateful to be able to get Higher Ground and Netflix to partner with them to release the film into the world.”

Last week, one of Higher Ground's two directors, former first lady Michelle Obama (the other being former President Barack Obama), introduced the documentary at a premiere in Batiste's hometown of New Orleans. After praising Jaouad and Batiste, she turned her attention to Heineman, invoking his previous projects, City of Ghosts and Oscar nominee Cartel Land — both about the human condition in conflict zones.

Jon Batiste and Michelle Obama attend the premiere of 'American Symphony' in New Orleans on December 7, 2023.

Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images for Netflix

“In American Symphony, Matthew employs the same raw and insightful approach he has used in previous projects covering Syrian activists facing brutality or civilians rising up against drug cartels. In doing so, Matthew shows us that human bravery exists in many forms – even in concert halls and cancer wards,” she told a packed audience.

Although he tackled some challenging subjects on foreign soil, Heineman's journey with American Symphony It felt even more personal because it hits so close to home.

“My father battled cancer most of my life and at Sloan Kettering where Suleika was treated,” he says. “For about 20 years – during most of my formative years, from age six to 25 – he went through various stages of chemotherapy and surgeries. He was on the verge of death many times. So, in a way, this film is also a tribute to him.”

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