Friday 8 December 2023

On demand: "American Symphony"

The American documentarist Matthew Heineman has spent much of the last decade amid the bullets and rubble of latter-day warzones: the US-Mexico border for 2015's Cartel Land, the bombsites of Syria for 2017's truly harrowing City of Ghosts. From a distance, American Symphony might have the look of an easy option, some well-deserved time off. Here is a project that takes place entirely on the homefront (New York, predominantly), and which takes as its subjects friends of this director. Events overtook the film, nevertheless. It starts off resembling a lap of honour for the Louisiana-born musician Jon Batiste, who as we join him in early 2022 is gainfully employed as the bandleader on Stephen Colbert's Late Show, the recipient of eleven Grammy nominations for his own recordings and his soundtrack for the Pixar animation Soul, and gearing up to premiere his first symphony at Carnegie Hall, a work commissioned to mark the reopening of public life after the pandemic. All would appear to be going swimmingly - and yet Batiste's partner, the writer Suleika Jaouad, has just learnt the rare form of leukaemia she beat into remission in 2011 has returned, necessitating further chemo and a bone-marrow transplant. (With grim irony, this new diagnosis comes on the very day the Grammy nominations are announced.) If we don't quite witness the carnage of Heineman's breakthrough documentaries, we will be made privy to some pain, and also much fortitude, resistance and endurance. (The conflict here is being fought internally.) In as much as the finished film still counts as a portrait of Batiste - rather than a broader study of a young, eminently photogenic couple negotiating the oncological obstacles in their midst - American Symphony shows us an artist figuring out a way to improvise in life the way he routinely does at the piano. Life goes on. The show must go on. But can the two go on side-by-side?

That we have hope - and I hope it's not too damaging a spoiler to say the film is a largely buoying viewing experience - is down to the way Batiste's loping, bouncy energy seems to have found its way into Heineman's filmmaking from a very early stage. This is from the off a looser, less terse Heineman documentary than those that have preceded it. Short, snappy scenes establish both Batiste's newfound standing and the predicament he finds himself in; whenever the prognosis takes a turn for the sobering, Heineman allows himself to cut away to the music, whether the electric gigs Batiste plays with band Stay Human or the more tentative business of a debut symphony in rehearsal. Still, we are forever aware that the film's subject has (and/or feels a need) to be in at least two places at once, and not even an 11-time Grammy nominee can completely bend the rules of physics. What's interesting about American Symphony is that I can see older viewers (and non-creatives) raising an eyebrow at what Heineman caught during filming. Clearly, these lovebirds arrived at some kind of (off-camera) arrangement that Batiste would get on with his own thing(s) while Jaouad was hooked up to a drip, which ensures the film is absolutely not a study in sacrifice for a loved one: while his other half undergoes treatment, Batiste is filmed out on tour, honouring the engagements to which he'd previously committed, and earning the money that must make it easier to pay for a high standard of health care.

But that doesn't mean there aren't doubts, fears and sleepless nights along the way; in a sense, the musician is caught between having to do too much in one arena, and not being able to do anything much in another, other than hope, pray and offer reassurance. But how much reassurance can he offer with mere words? And what good are armfuls of Grammies when your beloved is being taken away in the back of an ambulance? The juxtaposition of these two worlds, sensitively achieved, casts new light on those scenes of Batiste at the piano: knowing what we do about his personal life, every note he commits to feels like an urgent communiqué to his sweetheart, to be set alongside the many texts, voicemails and late-night, post-gig FaceTimes. By the time the symphony is in a state to be publicly performed, something deeply romantic has become profoundly clear: this one's for her. Maybe that giddying romantic streak explains why the whole still looks a touch unbalanced editorially. It's possible Jaouad didn't want a film crew hanging around the treatment room, testing her immune system while watching her hair fall out; it is, still, mostly a film about Jon Batiste, which may well have been Heineman's initial commission. Yet making Batiste the focus at this time in his life allows American Symphony to gesture towards something bigger - and something documentary hasn't often captured at such close quarters: how art helps us focus, reorder and make sense of the world, and how - if we're lucky, and we apply ourselves enough - art can sometimes pull us through.

American Symphony is now streaming on Netflix.

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