How much longer will the Oscars wait? That is, wait to embrace the quality and sheer brilliance of documentary filmmaking in a significant way, meaning nominating one in the best picture category? Matthew Heineman’s deeply moving “American Symphony,” which follows Oscar and Grammy-winning composer Jon Batiste as he prepares for his performance at Carnegie Hall, is yet another home run for the filmmaker behind “Cartel Land” and “City of Ghosts,” not to mention a singular love story.
Batiste’s larger-than-life personality was on full display following the Telluride screening of the documentary, when he led a band down to the main street of Telluride.
The film doesn’t just follow Batiste in his musical element, such as his work as band leader for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” or when he led the 2022 Grammy nominations and won album of the year. Instead, it’s an intimate portrait of his personal life as he battles anxiety and confronts his wife Suleika Jaouad’s battle with leukemia.
In 2009, the Academy Awards expanded their allotted nominees for best picture, going from five to 10 movies. This was mostly seen as a reactionary measure following the snub of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” the year before. In the initial announcement, the Academy’s leaders mentioned that this offered more of an opportunity for animated films and documentaries to land in the lineup. Fourteen years later, no non-fiction movies have been embraced by the Academy at large, despite the singular power of such documentaries as “Life Itself,” “Searching for Sugar Man” and “Flee.”
“American Symphony” could be a frontrunner in the documentary feature race — or even best picture — if it’s acquired for distribution this awards season and released this year. Heineman’s previous documentary Oscar nom was for 2015’s “Cartel Land,” with his other works “City of Ghosts” (2017), “The First Wave” (2021) and “Retrograde” (2022) all making the initial shortlist.
With a popular figure like Batiste campaigning, it could finally be the moment for a documentary to break through. Of course, first, someone needs to buy it.