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“American Symphony” reviewed

Partway through “American Symphony,” the musician Jon Batiste pokes gentle fun at the coverage he received in advance of the 2022 Grammys. The breadth of his 11 nominations, which bridged pop, jazz and classical categories, made him tough to label. He ultimately fended off Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish to win album of the year.


This documentary, directed by Matthew Heineman, is likewise deceptively tricky to peg. In the broad strokes, it is a process film, following Batiste, who grew up in the New Orleans area and trained at Juilliard, as he prepares a wildly original symphony that shares a title with the movie. “My ambition for composing this symphony is massive,” he says. “I’m trying to expand the canon of symphonic music, break through long-gatekept spaces.”

But this is also a movie about two artists, their love, their creative attitudes and how, as a couple, they approach living a “life of contrasts.” That description comes from the writer Suleika Jaouad, Batiste’s partner (they marry during the film), whose best-selling memoir, “Between Two Kingdoms,” was published in 2021 and who, before college, studied at Juilliard herself, with a specialization in double bass.

As Batiste gets ready for his Grammy and Carnegie Hall coups, Jaouad undergoes a bone marrow transplant after a recurrence of cancer. (She received her first leukemia diagnosis at 22, and from 2012 to 2015 wrote in The Times about her experiences.)

While some of the backstage material has an official feel (Batiste and Jaouad are listed among the many executive producers, along with Barack and Michelle Obama), the documentary does not shy from showing private moments. It captures Batiste hiding his head under a pillow as he talks on the phone with his therapist and sits in with the couple as a doctor discusses the open-ended course of chemotherapy he is recommending. When it comes to the music, too, the film is unafraid to dwell on a drawn-out silence or phrase.