By Lynn Venhaus

Transformative in the very best of ways, both heartbreaking and heartwarming, “American Symphony” is an ode to believing in art, hope, and love.

It’s a portrait of two artists, musician Jon Batiste and writer Suleika Jaouad, at a crossroads in life, and how their devotion to each other, and their creative expression become their survival mechanism.

The longtime couple are two remarkable and talented human beings whose hearts beat as one. What started as a documentary detailing Batiste putting together an ambitious and genre-jumping symphony became something different when they found out Suleika’s leukemia had returned after 10 years in remission.

It was the same week in November 2021 that Jon became the most celebrated artist of the year with 11 Grammy nominations. For the next seven months, they share their intimate journey as they experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

Directed with keen insight and empathetic sensitivity by Matthew Heineman, Oscar nominee for “Cartel Land” in 2016, this film is not only one of the best feature documentaries of the year, but also one of my favorite films of the year.

Jon Batiste in concert

When he is not composing and rehearsing “American Symphony,” an original work that reimagined the traditions of the classical form, bringing together an inclusive cultural group for a one-night-only performance at Carnegie Hall on Sept. 22, 2022, he is at his wife’s hospital bedside while she recovers from a bone-marrow transplant.

Batiste, Oscar winner for the music score to “Soul” (along with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross), and five-time Grammy winner, including Album of the Year for “We Are,” is likely most known as the bandleader of “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” from 2015 to 2021. He left that job to help care for his wife.

Jaouad is a best-selling author whose book “Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted” was about how she began again after her first four-year battle with cancer – a diagnosis she had received post-college graduation, at age 22. She writes The Isolation Journals, which has developed an online community.

Suleika Jaouad

Now 35 and 37, they met at a summer band camp when she was 12 and he was 14, and they’ve been in a relationship since 2014.

The love song that plays over the end credits, “It Never Went Away,” is one of many lullabies that he wrote Suleika during her cancer treatment. He composed the song, “Butterfly,” that is included on his “World Music Radio” album, in her hospital room and it is now nominated for a Grammy for Song of the Year.

Gayle King once described Batiste as “walking joy,” and he exudes that performing. But here, he’s open about his grappling with the weight of Suleika’s treatment on his mental health.

During a concert performance, he dedicates his last song to Suleika, but frozen with raw emotion, he must ‘compartmentalize’ his feelings to push forward. It’s these genuine moments that define the film.

Suleika and Jon at Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center

Just like their bodies of work soothe the soul, they have collaborated on a touching chronicle of their tremendous courage, resilience, and deep love for each other. 

They trusted Heinemann, and consented to have cameras present during some of their most vulnerable moments, and their willingness to be honest about their struggles deepens our connection.

“American Symphony” is a testament to the human spirit, and will be able to reach a lot of people who need that assurance.

“American Symphony” is a 2023 documentary directed by Matthew Heineman. It is rated PG-13 for strong language and runs 1 hour, 43 minutes. It streams on Netflix beginning Nov. 29. Lynn’s Grade: A.

(Note: I am a paid subscriber to Suleika’s Isolation Journals and highly recommend signing up for her Sunday writings – free or fee, for anyone, but especially those who have loved ones or themselves who have undergone serious illness, a loss, or setbacks out of our control.)

Jon Batiste conducting “American Symphony”