In his latest documentary, “American Symphony,” Oscar-nominated director Matthew Heineman delivers a portrait of two artists — Grammy winner and former “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” bandleader Jon Batiste and his wife, author Suleika Jaouad.
Heineman is known for putting his life on the line to make documentaries about the Mexican drug wars (“Cartel Land”), the initial explosion of COVID-19 in the U.S. (“The First Wave”) and the final months of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan (“Retrograde”). But in “American Symphony,” which makes its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival on Aug. 31, the helmer captures a more intimate battle.
In early 2022, after receiving 11 Grammy nominations including album of the year, Batiste sets out to compose “American Symphony,” an original symphony that reimagines the classical traditions of the form at Carnegie Hall. But life turns upside down when Jaouad learns that her long-dormant cancer has returned. Heineman’s 103-minute docu is a meditation on life – the peaks and the valleys – unfolding.
Jon and Suleika, did Matt approach you with the idea to make “American Symphony”?
Batiste: I approached Matt wanting to film something around the creation of (my) “American Symphony.” The lead up to it, and everything around the creative process. I’d worked with Matt on “The First Wave.” I did the score. I thought it would be an amazing combination to have someone like Matt in the front lines of a symphony creation film.
The doc began as a film about the creation of your symphony but shifted when Suleika’s cancer returned. When did that shift occur?
Jaouad: Maybe a week or two after Jon started filming for the initial idea for the documentary, I learned that my leukemia had returned. Jon learned of his 11 Grammy nominations that first day of chemotherapy, which I think so perfectly encapsulated what we were about to experience in the next couple of months because Jon came with me (that day) and while we were there, he got a call from President Biden congratulating him on his Grammy nominations. I said to John, “This is perhaps the only out, but I give you permission to leave the room right now to take this call.” That was just like a perfect, ridiculous moment that embodied so much of what we ended up having to navigate as individuals, as partners to each other as artists and creative collaborators — just figuring out how to hold it all.
Suleika, you let Matt film you throughout your illness – both in the hospital and while at home. Was it hard to give him so much access during such a difficult time?
Jaouad: We have so many illness narratives in popular culture now, and it felt really important to me not just to tell that story from the perspective of someone who’s survived and gone on to have a victorious end to their story. But to really show the full depiction of what it means to not just be sick but to be a human who’s also trying to create things in the world and trying to be in community. (I wanted) to show all of it, not just the sort of silver lining aspects of it, but to dig at the deeper truth of what it means to have to navigate something like this.
Matt, what was it like to film this intimate story as opposed to filming on the frontlines?
Heineman: Certainly, it wasn’t as dangerous as other things I’ve done, but whether it’s this (film) or “Retrograde,” “Cartel Land” or anything I’ve made, the goal for me is both a literal and an emotional intimacy that feels different than you are normally getting in these circumstances. The access that Jon and Suleika gave me, both emotionally and literally was incredible. So that felt both different and familiar.
Jon, the film includes the criticism you received for both the Grammys you won and the symphony you created. How did you feel about that?
Ultimately, there are ways of completely marginalizing people like me who don’t stick within the lines that are drawn for us. And I defied that purposefully and gleefully. So, I’m glad it’s depicted in the film because I think it’s just the reality. With all of the success and all of the things that I’ve done and (being) the first this and the pioneer of this and that, I still have to deal with people who doubt my expertise and have the audacity to comment on my artistry and still have to prove myself to someone who doesn’t even have a fifth of the ability to do half of what I do. So, if I were to state it, frankly, I’m glad that it’s in there because I think people should know that behind all of the success for someone like me in my shoes, to still have to deal with this is an indictment of the culture that we live in and something should be changed about it.
Matt, you have worked with National Geographic Documentary Films on your last few docus, but this one has yet to find a distributor. What was it like making a film without a platform behind you?
I always feel like I’m making art independently even if it’s with a partner. But this felt particularly bootstrappy and gritty in terms of how we made it, how we put it together, and the tiny team that that did it. But it was really important to me to have the independence to make this film, and I’m excited to find a partner and bring it out in the world.
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