December 24, 2023 – Seeing this title, I was reminded that it is actually contained in another famous movie, “Mr. Holland's Opus” (1995). Near the end of that movie, a teacher at his retirement party, played by Richard Dreyfuss, is surprised to find his students on stage, ready to play, with the announcement, “If you will, would you please come up here and take this baton and lead us in the first performance ever of ‘The American Symphony’ by Glenn Holland?”
This documentary (streaming on Netflix) depicts a year in the life of multi award-winning musician Jon Batiste, who is under enormous pressure to finish his own American Symphony, to be played at Carnegie Hall. At the same time, his wife, Suleika Jaouad, has a recurrence of lukemia. Batiste's marriage ceremony with Suleika is in the film, along with a lot of highs and lows in her battles with cancer.
Director Matthew Heineman (“A Private War”) got amazing access to Batiste and his wife for this film. We see both of them in many scenes that most people would consider private. Suleika is seen in her hospital bed in great pain, and Batiste is seen dealing with panic attacks, grief, depression, stress, and in psychiatric sessions.
I saw Batiste for years on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” always upbeat, always positive, and almost always with a smile on his face, I never really got a very full sense of the man behind that smile. In this film, I got more of a sense of him. For one thing, he is a religious Christian. Many people say they are Christian without behaving like it, but Batiste seems to embody the religion in a positive way.
As a musician, Batiste is a strong leader, but he is also a collaborator, perhaps because of a deep background in jazz. He encourages creativity and improvisation among musicians as he develops the sound of his symphony. He includes a variety of musical influences in his symphony, including the music of Native Americans. He hates being pigeonholed into a particular genre.
Suleika, who is also a musician, had lukemia at the age of 22, and had been in remission for years, when she had a recurrence. At the same time Batiste is getting Grammy Awards, Suleika is undergoing a risky second bone marrow implant procedure.
Batiste clearly loves music, but there are days when it seems too much like work, and he would rather be with his wife in her time of need. He also needs to finish the symphony, and he is still the leader of the band on the Late Show (although he is shown quitting that gig during the course of this movie).
Batiste is triumphant in the performance of his symphony, and he wins five Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year, and for his music in the film “Soul.” Batiste and his wife, and others appear masked in much of the film due to the Covid pandemic and Suleika's depressed immune system.
More awards might be heading Batiste's way next year. His song (co-written with Dan Wilson) “It Never Went Away,” sung by Batiste over the credits of the film “American Symphony” may win an Academy Award for best song. This is a great movie about music, musicians and two people dealing with challenges with grace, courage and love. It rates an A.
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