American Symphony

American Symphony
American Symphony
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’The thing we appreciate most about music is not its pleasant sound,’ declares the musician Jon Batiste in a voiceover at the beginning of American Symphony. ‘The thing we love about it is how it sounds like it was meant to be.’ It’s a rather pensive, philosophical approach, especially from someone who many still identify as the former bandleader on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. He was mostly seen on this show as a bundle of joy who sang his melodica to the audience four nights per week with his intoxicating New Orleans energy and his rich jambalaya pot of music genres. However, there seems to be more in real life as this documentary may suggest.

Director Matthew Heineman has created a fascinating film that seeks to delve into Batiste and Jaouad’s inner selves. A great job well done by Matthew Heineman; City Of Ghosts and Cartel Land are some examples of his previous works. They met when they were both teenagers at band camp and their mutual creativity appears to carry them throughout thick or thin; she had leukaemia at 22, which has relapsed again while we meet her in the movie hence she is confined to hospital where she has had her bone marrow replaced.

Their reaction to such terrible inexplicable injustice is intriguing. “We both see survival as its own kind of creative act,” explains Jaouad, and both of them use artistic expression to digest the trauma of the experience. For example, Jaouad shares her experiences through a column in The New York Times and also published a book on it; whenever her sight fails due to heavy medicine doses she paints instead.

Batiste is meanwhile caught between an exploding career — he won five Grammys last year including album of the year — and family strains plus anxieties over how best he can navigate two wildly different lives. So he decides to compose ‘American Symphony’, an allegorical representation America, as a melting-pot of diverse backgrounds and genres. It is fascinating to observe his creative process, with Heineman’s camera staying close up on Batiste while he thinks out the tunes; his face appears to wrestle with the music. Some gorgeous grainy cinematography matches the subject’s rich texture.

At Carnegie Hall, American Symphony premieres and it sounds beautiful — something like George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue only more avant-garde and thrillingly original. At one point in the movie, there seems to be a power-cut in the room which elicits Batiste performing an impromptu piano piece that is simply lovely. It may seem intentional or not but it aptly captures what Batiste and Jaouad consider their life purpose – creativity in adversity. Whether this does become intensely personal or not will depend upon who ultimately experiences it; nevertheless, this is still a film that feels crafted with meticulous attention to detail.

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