American Symphony: Jon Batiste & Suleika Jaouad's Intimate, Tough Year

Exploring the Depths of a Couple's Challenging Year.

by Nouman Rasool
American Symphony: Jon Batiste & Suleika Jaouad's Intimate, Tough Year
© Erika Goldring/GettyImages

In 2022, Jon Batiste, the renowned musician and former bandleader on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert," embarked on a journey that was both professionally triumphant and personally challenging. Known for his vibrant Louisianan style, Batiste was not only nominated for an impressive 11 Grammys across various genres of American music, but he also took on the ambitious task of creating a new symphonic composition for a performance at the prestigious Carnegie Hall.

His career trajectory seemed to be on an upward spiral, with plans for a national tour on the horizon. However, this year of professional highs was juxtaposed with personal lows, as his partner, Suleika Jaouad, an accomplished artist and author, faced a cancer diagnosis.

This poignant and emotional journey is captured in the Netflix documentary "American Symphony," which debuted at the Telluride Film Festival and is now seen as a potential Oscar contender.

Intimacy Amidst Turmoil

The documentary offers a raw and authentic glimpse into the couple's life during this tumultuous period, including their marriage in an intimate, homespun ceremony, overshadowed by Jaouad's cancer treatment.

Renowned documentary director Matthew Heineman, a close friend of Batiste, reveals in the film that he spent up to 18 hours a day with the couple, documenting their most private moments. Originally intended to showcase Batiste's journey of bringing his unique musical flair to a full symphony orchestra at Carnegie Hall, the film evolved into a much deeper narrative.

Batiste, a Juilliard School alumnus, expressed in the film his desire to document the process, highlighting the scarcity of Black musical achievements in the canon of American music. His "American Symphony," staged in September 2022, was envisioned to represent a contemporary American symphony orchestra.

The film, through Batiste's sometimes jarring musical compositions and Heineman's close, tension-filled cinematography, captures their vulnerability and discomfort. In one notable scene during Batiste's tour, a 95-second silent pause powerfully precedes his improvised song dedicated to his wife, an emotional moment Heineman describes as Batiste "writing a novella" on screen.

Producer Lauren Domino points out that from the 1,500 hours of footage, a narrative of "radical vulnerability" emerges. The film intimately portrays scenes of Batiste and Jaouad together in bed, and Batiste alone, sharing his inner turmoil with his therapist.

These moments offer a deeper understanding of Batiste's life beyond his public achievements, including leaving his role on "The Late Show," winning five Grammys, and performing his symphony, revealing the profound experiences in the silences between his public triumphs.