Life while it’s happening

Jon Batiste’s personal, moving documentary, ‘American Symphony,’ coming to the Grange Hall.


“American Symphony” layers a story about love, creativity, and the human spirit around the creation of a musical extravaganza by multi-instrumentalist Jon Batiste, who touches on jazz, classical, R and B, and funk. He was the well-known bandleader on “The Late Show” with Stephen Colbert. The documentary, presented by Circuit Arts at the Grange Hall, covers his yearlong journey of reimagining the classical orchestral form into a one-night-only pan-genre performance at Carnegie Hall. Life should be feeling even better for Batiste, in fact. But just as he learns the fantastic news of his 11 2022 Grammy nominations, his wife, author Suleika Jaouad, hears that her cancer, after a decadelong remission, has returned, thus thrusting them into a fight for her life, including restarting chemotherapy and a harrowing bone marrow transplant during the tail end of the pandemic.

The moving documentary carries us through their journey with its highs and lows. And there are wonderful times along the way, such as Jaouad watching at home as Batiste pulls in five of his Grammy Awards, including best album, and a showstopping performance of his hit song “Freedom.” There is a carefree moment with the couple out in the snow for Batiste’s first-ever ride on a sled that briefly makes you forget her imminent danger. And there is an intimate wedding on the eve of her treatment, where love and tenderness are tangible.

Emmy awardwinning director Matthew Heineman also includes sobering moments such as potent appointments with Jaouad’s doctors, times of pain during her hospital stays, and Batiste’s phone calls with his therapist as he struggles with his panic and anxiety as the pressure to create “American Symphony” mounts.

“Maybe it’s the stakes of this piece getting done, stakes of representing your race and your culture. The stakes of living up to the ideas and creative potential that have been put in you,” Batiste says at one point.

We also witness him dealing with the classical music establishment’s resentment of his encroachment on their territory, which went back to his time at Julliard. During a visit to his alma mater, when walking by a photo of him playing one of his favorite instruments, the melodica (a sort of mouth keyboard), Batiste tells us that the school, considering it a “child’s toy” at the time, sent him to a psychiatrist.

Creativity is essential to both Jaouad and Batiste. They met as youth at jazz camp, but her original diagnosis led her to become a New York Times columnist. The bestselling author focused on cancer writing rather than the bass and cello. When treatment makes her too ill to write, we see Jaouad producing a plethora of phantasmagorical artwork.

Music, of course, is the fabric that holds the story together. We see Batiste at work alone and with avant-garde, jazz, classical, indigenous, and folk musicians while he develops “American Symphony.” He tells us that for the piece, he wants these forms “all together.” “That’s what America’s all about. The ideal way … if we lived up to the things we’re about.” But it is hard to break the mold when Jaouad’s ever-present struggle eats away at the kind of space ideally necessary to do so.

Yet, somehow, we both hear and see how Batiste’s creative drive wins because music is elemental to him. He says early on, “What we love about music is not that it sounds good. What we love about music is that it sounds inevitable. It’s playing the thing we all know is unfolding, whether we want to accept it or not. And it’s there always. You just need to harness it. Be open to it.”

Being open to it is precisely how Batiste lives his life. Without including a spoiler, there’s an incident at the end during the Carnegie Hall performance that demonstrates just how present he is.

If you missed Circuit Arts’ sold-out June show, you will want to experience “American Symphony” on the big screen. A prerecorded Zoom discussion with Heineman will follow the screening. As always, tickets are pay what you wish, and members of AMPAS, BAFTA, the DGA, the PGA, SAG-AFTRA, and the WGA are invited to attend for free.

“American Symphony” will be at the Grange Hall. Pay what you wish at