In early 2022, composer and instrumentalist Jon Batiste found himself in an admirable position. He was nominated for 11 Grammy Awards in multiple categories and he had a upcoming concert date at Carnegie Hall for the “American Symphony” he was writing. But excitement was tempered with the distressing news from his long-time partner, Suleika Jaouad. Her cancer which had been in remission for years was back, and she was facing a bone marrow transplant and chemotherapy. A writer, she had documented her earlier treatment for this cancer in a column
“Life, Interrupted” in The New York Times.

This documentary directed by Michael Heineman follows Jon and Suleika through the ups and downs required to hold these extremes at the same time. It is a portrait of both the creative and the healing process. The glue holding them together through it all is love.

Jon Batiste performing in American Symphony

American Symphony includes many scenes of Jon composing at the piano, working with collaborators, and traveling the country to collect samples of the American soundscape with the intention of including a variety of styles into a symphony that goes beyond the traditional form. We enjoy watching his moments of discovery as the music comes together. But the film also goes behind the scenes to convey the stress of deadlines, his worries about Suleika, and his concern that he can’t handle all that is being thrown his way. In one particularly poignant scene he talks to his therapist while hiding his head underneath a pillow.

Meanwhile, Suleika deals with the pain of her illness, the tension waiting to see if the treatments will work, and long separations from Jon. She turns to painting in her hotel room to express her feelings. A key moment in her story is when she learns that she will have to have regular chemotherapy treatments for the rest of her life.

Thomas Moore said it well in Care of the Soul: “Creativity means making something for the soul out of every experience.” This documentary ends with the Carnegie Hall performance of American Symphony. There are a few glitches (a power outage!) and moments that may not have gone as well as the musicians wanted. But one thing is clear: this is something for the soul – as is every second of Jon’s and Suleika’s story leading up to it.