There was a surprise at the end of a Montclair Film Festival screening of the documentary American Symphony, about the musician and composer Jon Batiste, on Saturday. The twist didn’t come during the movie, but immediately after, when Batiste himself hopped on stage to speak to the sold-out audience.
The crowd that packed the Wellmont Theater jumped to its feet, clapping and cheering. Exuding boyish energy and flashing a huge smile, Batiste joined film director Matthew Heineman and Montclair Film co-head and artistic director Tom Hall for the talkback.
As the bandleader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert from 2016 until this summer, Batiste has a connection to the festival, which was co-founded by Colbert’s wife, Evelyn McGee Colbert. Colbert himself, though, had contracted Covid and missed the festival’s opening weekend.
American Symphony documents a period in 2021 and 2022 when Batiste was composing a symphony and performing across the country, including in Las Vegas, where he won five Grammy Awards, while his wife, journalist and author Suleika Jaouad, was battling a recurrence of leukemia and enduring a bone marrow transplant.
“The film is about the duality of life and how it all is happening at once,” Batiste said. “It’s about the rhythms of life and the movement of life. It’s not just about the Symphony; it’s about the symphony of life.”
Batista said he and Jaouad made the decision together to allow cameras into their lives for 14 hours a day over many months.
“It was really hard to be that vulnerable and to think about what the ramifications of being so open would be,” he said. “But you get used to the camera being part of the family. After months of that sort of experience, you kind of let your guard down. You’re moving through life.”
American Symphony, which will be released on Netflix on November 29, captures many of the couple’s vulnerable moments—their impromptu wedding the night before Jaouad’s transplant, their poignant game of Simon Says in the hospital hallway, Batiste’s anxiety attack and call with his therapist.
The drama builds to a peak at the symphony’s Carnegie Hall debut, when 14 cameras capture a near-calamity, which Batiste handles with exuberant grace, bursting into a frenetic impromptu piano number.
On Sunday, a person from the audience asked after Jaouad’s health, and Batiste replied, “She’s doing so much better,” to loud applause.
Jaouad is the author of the “Life, Interrupted” column in the The New York Times; her 2021 memoir, Between Two Kingdoms, was a New York Times best seller.
Batiste, who greeted movie-goers with hugs and posed for selfies after the talk, believes that live music can uplift an increasingly disconnected, “plug-in” society. He named his band, which is composed of peers from Juilliard, Stay Human; their 2011 album was recorded entirely on New York City subway cars in an effort to connect with people. They’ve also performed random impromptu street concerts.
Batiste said that experiencing his wife’s struggle at an inflection point for his career was a blessing, giving him a “clear perspective on what’s important.”
“There’s so much we’re told is important, so much that’s prescribed to us as to what we should be ambitious towards, what we should be focused on, with the short amount of time we are all on this earth. It’s such a vapor; we’re here and then we can go. Not knowing if Suleika was gonna make it and us not knowing if all the things that we planned would even come to pass, juxtaposed with [my musical work]…It just made me see everything that I’d aspired to for a decade or more completely differently. Not to say that it’s not great to have aspirations or goals and to want to share your music. But it put a very acute awareness on what’s most important to me and why I do it in the first place.”
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