The former first lady introduced the Matthew Heineman film at a special screening Thursday night in New Orleans, a place of special significance for Batiste, who was born in nearby Metairie, Louisiana and raised in Kenner just outside N.O. proper. Michelle and Barack Obama are executive producing the Netflix film through their Higher Ground production company, which has a distribution deal with the streaming platform.
“I’m beyond thrilled to be here in Nawlins with all y’all!” Mrs. Obama began (she noted Barack Obama’s absence at the event, sharing “My husband, he’s not here. He says, ‘Hey.’”). “There is no better place to lift up this work than in the city where music is at the heart of everything, because music is at the heart of this film.”
Heineman’s documentary tracks the development of Batiste’s “wildly original symphony” (as the New York Times put it), a classical work that gives the film its title. During the project, Batiste earned an astonishing 11 Grammy Award nominations for his album World Music Radio. But celebrating that achievement took a backseat to caring for Jaouad, who suffered a recurrence of cancer with which she was originally diagnosed at age 22.
“This film is about so much more than one man’s meteoric ascent,” Mrs. Obama noted. “It is the story of two souls, Jon and Suleika, two souls on parallel paths. Alongside Suleika’s courageous battle with leukemia, we see the fuller story behind Jon’s Grammy wins and that Carnegie Hall performance [in May 2022], the harmony and dissidence that lifts them both up, yet tears them both down in their journey. We see how art and music can be a source of healing.”
American Symphony premiered at the Telluride Film Festival and has gone on to win numerous prizes, including audience awards at the Montclair Film Festival, Virginia Film Festival, Woodstock Film Festival, and Philadelphia Film Festival. It won Best Music Documentary and Best Score at the recent Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards and is nominated for four awards at the Cinema Eye Honors to be held next month in New York.
The Obamas have earned great acclaim for their Higher Ground documentary slate at Netflix – 2019’s American Factory won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and 2020’s Crip Camp earned an Oscar nomination. But it is rare for the Obamas to make public appearances on behalf of their films, preferring in general to maintain a lower profile behind the scenes.
In her opening remarks, Mrs. Obama described Batiste as her dear friend.
“Jon says music, for him, is more than entertainment. It’s a spiritual practice. He says he believes a song or an album is made and almost has a radar to find the person when they need it most. Ain’t that the thing?” she commented. “We also learn that the victories we see in public aren’t usually the whole story, even with famous people. And even if the extreme highs and lows don’t necessarily balance each other out, then at the very least they can exist together in an imperfectly beautiful way.”
Mrs. Obama also showered praise on Heineman, the Oscar-nominated director of documentaries Cartel Land, City of Ghosts, The First Wave, docuseries The Trade, and narrative feature A Private War (starring Rosamund Pike as war correspondent Marie Colvin).
“In American Symphony, Matthew employs the same raw and discerning approach that he’s used in previous projects covering Syrian activists standing up to brutality or civilians rising up against drug cartels,” Mrs. Obama said. “In doing so, Matthew shows us that human bravery exists in many forms, even in concert halls and cancer wards.”
She added, “These are exactly the kind of stories and storytellers that Barack and I hoped to partner with when we started our production company.”
American Symphony is one of 167 feature documentaries that have qualified for Oscar consideration (shortlist voting begins next week). It is currently streaming on Netflix.