Monday, May 20, 2024

American Symphony movie review (2023)

The director of “Cartel Land” and “Retrograde” hung out with Stephen Colbert’s band leader and “Soul” Oscar winner Batiste in early 2022 when his life was a case study in extremes. On the same day that he found out he was nominated for 11 Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year, he learned that his partner Suleika Jaouad’s dormant cancer had returned. Amid all this, Batiste was tackling his greatest artistic endeavor, “American Symphony,” a musical project designed to incorporate generations of music, focusing more on the contributions of people of color than the word symphony has historically been allowed to do. Planning a massive show at Carnegie Hall is stressful; doing it while watching the most important person in your life suffer through chemotherapy is almost unfathomable.

And the truth is it’s still kind of unfathomable after watching “American Symphony.” Despite more than enough positive messaging and moving material to justify a look on Netflix, there’s an increasing sense of guardedness as Batiste and Jaouad’s story progresses into its more intense chapters. We don’t really get a full grip on the artistic process of the creation of the symphony or the fear that comes with fighting cancer. Oh, they’re there, but it’s often in sound bites of voiceover or quick glimpses of intimate moments. Heineman is a very smart filmmaker, so I have to believe that the sense that we’re only being allowed so far into this couple’s life together is on the part of the subjects. 

There’s a sense of performance in many of the scenes with Batiste that’s made even more prominent when it falls away. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being moved by Batiste’s overall worldview about art and expression that he so often expresses, but there are quiet moments between him and Jaouad that give the film its true emotional foundation. I wanted a bit more of that observation—a bit more of those times when the emotion bubbled up in Batiste, and there wasn’t a piano around to channel it through—although perhaps there’s something pure about the sense that the most emotionally truthful scene in the film is the one in which Batiste is alone at a piano.

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HomeReviewsAmerican Symphony movie review (2023)

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