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The dark clouds behind the sunny smile of Jon Batiste

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

It’s impossible to converse with Jon Batiste without feeling the good vibes radiating from him, even over a Zoom link. It’s like talking to the sun.

“I want to send a big hug, much love right back over there,” the New Orleans-bred musician said at the top of our interview.

The Grammy- and Oscar-winning American singer/songwriter, 37, whose colourful suits seem to glow in sync with his personality, was taking a few minutes away from his many roles as bandleader, composer, educator and actor to discuss “American Symphony.” It’s a new Netflix documentary by Matthew Heineman (“Cartel Land”), co-produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, that started out as one thing and become something else.

“American Symphony” was supposed to be about the multi-instrumentalist’s genre-defying music, specifically the symphony of the title, a Carnegie Hall performance canvassing American music from funk to jazz to opera to Indigenous drumming. But the doc became more about life when Batiste’s wife, bestselling author Suleika Jaouad, learned during filming that the cancer she thought she’d beaten years ago had returned.

The couple got the bad news in November 2021, the same week Batiste received 11 nominations for the 2022 Grammy Awards, spanning a record seven categories. (He ultimately won five prizes, including Album of the Year for “We Are.”)

Jaouad had her second bone-marrow transplant, about a decade after the first, the day after she married Batiste in a private ceremony in their Brooklyn home.

Such peaks and valleys would be tough for any couple to traverse. But Batiste and Jaouad take their struggles with the same equanimity they bring to joyful events. There are many moments of both in “American Symphony,” including their wedding ceremony.


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