This year’s best documentary feature Oscar race, which heretofore seemed unusually wide open, now has a frontrunner.
American Symphony, Oscar nominee Matthew Heineman’s moving portrait of the musician Jon Batiste as he experiences his greatest professional success (he dominated the 2022 Grammys) at the same time his wife faces her greatest personal challenge (Suleika Jaouad is battling leukemia), has been acquired by Netflix following a lengthy bidding war, The Hollywood Reporter has learned.
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The film will be released this year and will be promoted with a major Oscar campaign in the works. Moreover, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama’s production company Higher Ground, which has a first-look deal with Netflix, is on board for the project, just as it was for two other recent Netflix films: 2019’s American Factory, which went on to win the best documentary feature Oscar, and for 2020’s Crip Camp, which was nominated for it.
Barack Obama and Michelle Obama said in a statement: “The themes of resilience and love at the heart of American Symphony resonate deeply with us — and we’re thrilled to bring the film into the Higher Ground family. Jon and Suleika’s journey of grace and strength echoes the experience of so many families who are forced to navigate the complications that surface when dreams meet adversity. For many years, Jon’s music has helped provide a soundtrack to our lives, and we’re grateful for the partnership he and Suleika have offered on issues like voting rights and the fight against cancer. We could not be more proud to join in telling their story and lift up the work of a talented filmmaker like Matt Heineman. Matt weaves a poignant tapestry of courage, love, and music and we are honored for Higher Ground to help share it with the world.”
Heineman, at just 39, is already one of the most respected documentary filmmakers in the business. His gutsy prior docs include depictions of life inside vigilante groups taking on Mexican drug cartels (2015’s Cartel Land, which was Oscar-nominated and won two Emmys), ISIS in Syria (2017’s City of Ghosts), a New York City emergency room during the earliest days of COVID (2021’s The First Wave) and Afghanistan during the U.S. military’s withdrawal from the country (2022’s Retrograde).
American Symphony is Heineman’s most commercial film yet. And Batiste seems to be very pleased with and supportive of the finished product, having accompanied Heineman to the Telluride Film Festival earlier this month for its world premiere — it was a favorite of many festivalgoers, and received a rave review from THR — and performed there in support of it.
Netflix, which has landed multiple nominees in the best documentary feature Oscar category in three of the past eight award seasons, also has Laura McGann’s The Deepest Breath and Roger Ross Williams’ Stamped From the Beginning in the running this season.
American Symphony was financed and co-produced by Mercury Studios, with Mercury’s Alice Webb, Barak Moffitt, Daniel Seliger and Marc Robinson among the film’s executive producers. Cinetic Media negotiated the deal on behalf of the filmmakers.
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