Best known for documentaries in conflict zones, Matthew Heineman competes for a Bafta with a film about musician Jon Batiste and his wife Suleika Jaouad, as they navigate a medical crisis and artistic pressure. Screen talks to the American Symphony filmmaker.
A love story? A music documentary? A film about cancer? Matthew Heineman’s American Symphony — which is nominated at the Bafta Film Awards for best documentary feature and at Oscar for best song — is all three. Even so, it perhaps seemed an unlikely choice for a US director best known for hard-hitting documentaries about Mexican drug lords (2015’s Cartel Land) or the Taliban (2022’s Retrograde).
In American Symphony there are no guns and no scenes filmed anywhere near war zones — and yet this was one of the most complex productions Heineman has yet taken on. He shot well over 1,500 hours of material, produced through his own company Our Time Projects, and financed the shoot with credit cards. (It was not until last September, following the Telluride premiere, that Netflix and Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground came on board in a deal negotiated by Cinetic Media.)
American Symphony follows Grammy- and Oscar-winning New Orleans singer/songwriter Jon Batiste as he prepares a major new symphonic work that will be performed at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
A genre-bending musician, Batiste trained at the Juilliard School, spent seven years leading the house band on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert and won an Oscar for his work on the score of Pixar’s Soul (2020). His wife Suleika Jaouad is a classical musician and bestselling author who wrote the ‘Life, Interrupted’ New York Times column about her experiences of cancer in her early 20s. While Batiste is working on ‘American Symphony’, Jaouad is in hospital — her leukaemia has returned and she needs a second bone marrow transplant.
Heineman embeds himself in the couple’s life in a turbulent and highly emotional period. Batiste’s musical triumphs are happening just as Jaouad is “starting to feel torn down”.
“A lot of people ask, ‘How does this film fit into the rest of the films you’ve made?,’” says the director, addressing any surprise at him taking on such an intimate and personal story. “Obviously, there wasn’t an element of physical danger there, so that was one major difference… [but] I am trying to find stories that are relevant, that are pertinent and that involve strong central characters trying to overcome some sort of odds.”
Early on, Jaouad was wary about the project. “She just didn’t want to be this antidote to Jon’s success. She didn’t want to be the ‘sick wife’ and so it took a long time to convince her.” The filmmaker took the time, though, to win her trust.
Mounting the film
Heineman is speaking from New York, where he is in the middle of shooting new Apple TV+ drama series The Savant, starring Jessica Chastain — his second foray into scripted, following 2018 film A Private War. He freely acknowledges that before collaborating with Batiste on his 2021 New York-set Covid doc The First Wave (for which Batiste wrote the closing song), he did not know the musician’s work that well. “I would be lying if I said I was keenly aware of him. I knew who he was but I wasn’t a devotee necessarily.”
The director and the musician quickly hit it off. They were having dinner one night when Batiste told him about the symphony. Heineman was immediately intrigued (“I had always wanted to somehow capture the creative process in real time”) and he began looking for backing for a potential documentary.
“Of all the films I had made, I thought this was by far the most commercial [but] while we were making it, we couldn’t get anyone aboard,” says Heineman, who went to “all the major distributors and funders”, but found every door closed. Only at a much later stage did Mercury Studios join as financier and co-producer. By then, Heineman and his team had already maxed out all their credit cards.
“I don’t want to get into details but we were extremely leveraged on this and took an enormous amount of risk,” he chuckles ruefully at the thought of the credit card bills. Not that the risk inhibited the time allocated to the shooting phase. “I’ve generally shot well over 1,000 hours on every project,” says Heineman. “You need to log the hours to be able to capture those moments of beauty and humanity and love and revelation. When I am making a verité film, you can’t just shoot from a call sheet for a couple of hours and hope you’ll be able to capture these moments — you need to become part of the fabric of the daily lives of your subjects.”
He adds that whenever he starts a project, he does not have a clear understanding of how it will end up. “In some ways it is in my DNA, wherever a film is funded, or not, just to jump in and do it. I start without any clear understanding of how it’s going to play out.”
‘It Never Went Away’, Batiste’s song about his love for Jaoaud that was written for the documentary, has been nominated for an Oscar. “It created a new architecture for the film, a new mood,” the director notes of the lullaby, which plays over the end credits. Heineman changed the final sequence to incorporate it the night before he was due to fly to Telluride for the premiere.
On some levels, American Symphony was not such a departure for the director. His 2020 film The Boy From Medellín profiles Colombian reggaeton singer J Balvin. As for the medical component of the new film, his Escape Fire: The Fight To Rescue American Healthcare (2012, directed with Susan Froemke) and The First Wave (2021) were also filmed on the wards. His father had been a long-term patient at New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where Jaoaud was treated. “His life was saved by experimental treatment there and so it was quite emotional being [there],” he says.
Dramatic piano solo
The film has a finale as dramatic as any fictional story about a great composer or maestro. The electricity to the stage goes out when Batiste has the public premiere of his ‘American Symphony’ at Carnegie Hall. The musician reacts by playing a solo at the piano as the audience waits for the power to be restored.
“The canvas was quite extensive, from deeply intimate verité, lying in the bed with them [Batiste and Joauad], to a 13-camera shoot at Carnegie Hall,” Heineman reflects on the storytelling styles. “It’s extremely difficult to shoot at Carnegie Hall with 13 cameras. It’s a lot of manoeuvring even to get in there in the first place.”
Heineman was determined not to “shoot from afar”. So he used a Steadicam on stage to show the concert from the composer’s own perspective. “[We] see the sweat on his forehead, hear the creak on the bench, his chest beating,” says Heineman. “Thank God I fought for that because when the power went out, there was a very confusing moment, sparks flew and the lights went off. All the electronics, the recording devices went down. If it wasn’t for the Steadicam, which had a mic on it, we wouldn’t have had sound.”
This, then, was a scene as tense in its way as anything Heineman has shot in war zones. The audience has already heard Batiste asking himself if he will “crack” on his big night. Instead, he improvises, turning a potentially disastrous situation into one of triumph — and providing the film’s most memorable moment.
“What a privilege to be inside that guy’s head. I’m not a religious person, but it’s undeniable when you’re with him, you see him channelling something. Whatever that is, I can’t exactly say… but it’s an unbelievable thing to witness, this combination of spirituality, art and life,” enthuses Heineman about the ever-adaptable Batiste. “Those all go hand in hand with him. There is this idea that art, with the two of them [Batiste and Jaouad], is a survival mechanism.”