Jon Batiste playing a piano.

American Symphony Dazzles in New Orleans

Jon Batiste, Suleika Jaouad, and director Matthew Heineman premiere their documentary in Batiste’s hometown with the help of former First Lady Michelle Obama. 

Photography by Erika Goldring
7 December 20235 min read

It was a royal homecoming tonight for musician Jon Batiste and his wife, best-selling author and Emmy-winning journalist Suleika Jaouad at the New Orleans premiere of American Symphony at the historic Orpheum Theater. 

The documentary feature — directed and produced by Matt Heineman, produced by Lauren Domino and Joedan Okun, and executive-produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions — chronicles the journey of Batiste and Jaouad as they navigate the epic highs and lows of 2022. 

“I’m just so honored and grateful to be here. Obviously it’s Jon’s hometown, so we always dreamed of premiering the film here,” says director Heineman.

The film includes Batiste garnering five Grammy wins and composing an original symphony that was performed at Carnegie Hall, while Jaouad battles a recurrence of leukemia, which had been dormant for 10 years. Captured intimately by the Emmy Award-winning Heineman, the film is a meditation on the power of creativity through times of personal turmoil. 

“Jon and I opened ourselves up in the process of making this film from sunup until sundown,” shared Jaouad. “There is nothing intuitive about opening your life up in this way, especially when you’re feeling your most laid bare and most vulnerable. But we knew from the beginning that if we were going to do this, it had to be grounded in a deeper why. And we both believe that survival is its own kind of creative practice.”

Former First Lady Michelle Obama opened the evening with an inspiring introduction delivered to an audience of Batiste and Jaouad’s friends and family, local dignitaries, and press. “I am beyond thrilled to be here to celebrate this amazing film that we — we being me and my husband Barack — are so, so honored and proud to be a part of, and there is no better place to lift up this work than in the city where music is at the heart of everything, Obama shared. “American Symphony opens us all up to the power and inevitability of music. Yet this film is about so much more than one man’s meteoric ascent. It is the story of two souls, Jon and Suleika, on parallel paths. Alongside Suleika’s courageous battle with leukemia, we see the fullest story behind Jon’s Grammy wins and that Carnegie Hall performance, the harmony and dissonance 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.”

Former First Lady Michelle Obama stands at a podium giving an introduction before the film while wearing a brown leather jacket.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama

“In American Symphony, Matthew [Heineman] employs the same raw and discerning approach that he has used in previous projects covering Syrian activists standing up to brutality or civilians rising up against drug cartels,” Obama continued. “In doing so, Matthew shows us that human bravery exists in many forms, even in concert halls and cancer wards. So I want to thank Matthew and his entire team for their extraordinary work bringing this story to life with compassion, nuance, and real heart. Like the subjects of his film, he has a gift for showing us what lies inside us all, even if we can’t express it ourselves.”

Also in attendance was the legendary New Orleans rapper Juvenile — who invited Batiste to perform on his NPR Tiny Desk concert earlier this year. After the film’s screening, Batiste took to the Orpheum’s stage and performed rousing piano renditions of “When the Saints Go Marching In” and Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up.”

Riding the homecoming vibe of the evening, New Orleans council member Helena Moreno and the City of New Orleans officially proclaimed December 7 “Jon Batiste Day.”

Jaouad, Heineman, and Domino then joined Batiste on the stage for a conversation moderated by Walter Isaacson, author, journalist, and professor at New Orleans’s Tulane University, where the filmmakers and participants discussed the creative process behind American Symphony

“This is not something that happens every day,” Batiste shared. “This is an occasion that I just want all of us to really be present in. Something so special has been poured into this film that it’s indescribable with words. Music is the universal language that inspired me to want to write. This film simply wouldn’t have been possible without me coming from the soil of New Orleans.”

Suleika Jaouad and Jon Batiste enjoying a moment with one another.

Suleika Jaouad and Jon Batiste