A Grueling Love Story, Loved by the Obamas
Matthew Heineman on the emotional journey making 'American Symphony' with Jon Batiste and Suleika Jaouad
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As a documentarian, Matthew Heineman has seen more than his share of human drama. His 2015 film Cartel Land — which was nominated for a best documentary feature Oscar — focused on vigilante groups fighting drug cartels along the U.S.-Mexican border. His 2017 City of Ghosts — which made the Oscar shortlist — documented Syrian activists resisting the ISIS takeover of their country. And his 2021 film The First Wave — also Oscar shortlisted — took an unflinching look at a Queens hospital, its medical staff and patients struggling to cope with the first four months of the Covid-19 epidemic.
But, still, Heineman confesses, making his newest documentary American Symphony proved more intense than anything he’d faced in his other films, where he often ventured into risky territory. “Obviously, the physical danger wasn’t there, but it was an emotional film,” he says of what he experienced behind the camera. “Even though all my docs have been very character-driven, following one or two or maybe three individuals to highlight a complex social issue, this is definitely the deepest I’ve ever gotten with the participants in a film. It had its own set of emotions. I’ve been quite journalistic in my filmmaking in keeping my participants at something of an arms’ length, but I think here I was way more open and participatory in talking about my intentions, making [my subjects] comfortable with the story I was telling.”
That’s because American Symphony takes an extremely intimate approach to its two interrelated story lines. It begins by following musician Jon Batiste — best known as the bandleader on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and also an Oscar winner for the score of 2020 animated film Soul — as he embarks on composing his first symphony, a compendium of all his musical influences, slated for a debut at Carnegie Hall. But then its focus widens to include Batiste’s wife, author Suleika Jaouad (Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted), as she learns that her cancer, a form of acute myeloid leukemia which had been in remission, has returned and she faces a second bone marrow transplant.
Heineman first came into contact with Batiste when he reached out to ask him to cowrite the score for The First Wave. “But it was during the pandemic and we weren’t actually face to face too much,” says Heineman. “So after the film was released, we got to know each other a bit more and over dinner he was telling me about American Symphony and his residency at Carnegie Hall, and we said we should document that. But that was early days. We thought it might just be a process film, a making-of.”
But soon after that dinner, events that would take the doc in unexpected directions, intervened. In November, 2021, Batiste was nominated for 11 Grammy Awards, including album of the year for We Are, and almost simultaneously Jaouad was re-diagnosed with cancer.
“The storyteller in me immediately said if this film is just going to be about Jon, it would be difficult to tell the story about Jon while he was dealing with this extraodinarily difficult experience in his personal life,” Heineman explains. “It was pretty clear I needed to figure out how to weave these two narratives together. How it would happen, how I would pull it off, those were huge question marks. Initially, Suleika didn’t want to be part of the film. She didn’t want to be the sick antidote to Jon’s success, she didn’t want to be the sick wife in the story. It took a lot of trust-building, dialog, to make her to feel comfortable to even start filming in the first place. Not knowing where it would all shake out, we owe so much to them for having the bravery to allow me and my team to capture their lives in such an intimate way at such an unbelievably sensitive and critical time. The whole film was, in some ways, a leap of faith. Even when we started filming, it was not clear Suleika would sign a release saying it was okay to use it.”
So, over the course of 2022, Heineman, working one camera himself while trading off shifts with his fellow cinematographers, Tony Hardmon and Thorsten Thielow, shadowed Batiste and Jaouad. “This was, ironically, one of my more difficult films to make for a variety of reasons,” Heineman continues. “Jon’s life is crazy. I’ve never seen a human being who does more in one day than him. We were filming 12, 14, 16 hours a day for seven, eight months. Every day was an adventure of access, with doors being shut in front of me and trying to open them. With Suleika in the hospital, it became even more complicated. A cold could have killed her because she had no immune system, and the last thing we wanted was to get her sick, so we were constantly testing and following protocols to figure out how to safely move between the two worlds, inside and outside the hospital.”
Heineman was able to earn the trust of staff at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center because he had previously spent time there when his own father had been treated for cancer. “My personal connection to the place and my having filmed The First Wave made them comfortable that I could navigate those halls sensitively,” he says.
Filming at the 2022 Grammys — where Batiste would perform his song “Freedom” and take home five awards — proved much more of a challenge. “We tried for months to get official access to film at the Grammys, but basically failed,” Heineman laughs. “So I snuck in as part of Jon’s entourage. I didn’t have a ticket. And I filmed on my iPhone. It just felt like it would have been a disservice to the film to not have those moments.” Testifies Lauren Domino, who came aboard to produce the film alongside Heineman and Joedan Okun, “Matt’s used to being in a war zone, so he was cool as a cucumber.”
As Batiste’s Carnegie Hall date approached, the director wasn’t sure if he’d even include the symphony’s performance in the film — even though, after a long negotiation, he convinced the hall’s management to allow him to employ a Steadicam on stage, which had never happened before. “I didn’t want it to feel like an appendage to the movie,” he says. But then halfway through the performance, the unexpected happened — no spoiler here — which introduced a new dramatic element in how Batiste met the moment. Says Heineman, “It sort of answered the question Jon poses in the first act: Am I going to crack?”
The completed American Symphony, which was financed and co-produced by Mercury Studios, was unveiled at Aug. 31 at the Telluride Film Festival and was quickly picked up by Netflix and Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground production company. “The themes of resilience and love at the heart of American Symphony resonate deeply with us,” the Obamas said at the time in a statement. Adds Heineman, “They’ve been deeply involved in the release and impact of the film. It’s been amazing to see how much they can elevate it to a different place, because it’s hard to get anyone to watch a documentary. We’re also trying to do a lot of different things with the film — for example, we’ve started a campaign to raise awareness about the lack of diversity among bone marrow donors and to encourage people to become bone marrow donors, which saved Suleika’s life.”
American Symphony is also now well positioned to make a run at Oscar gold, since in addition to earning a spot on the feature doc shortlist, it has also been shortlisted for both Batiste’s score and a song he wrote with Dan Wilson for the film called “It Never Went Away.”
“The whole ethos of this film has been incredibly organic,” Heineman concludes. “While Jon was in the hospital, he was writing lullabies to Suleika. And the song is in that vein — it is a lullaby to her.”