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The Love Story of Jon Batiste and Suleika Jaouad – Monomaxos

Inside a Manhattan hospital room in February 2022, Jon Batiste and Suleika Jaouad obtained their marriage license. A city clerk addressed the pair over Zoom, and a nurse held the laptop upright as a surgical port was being prepped to go in Jaouad’s chest. This isn’t how they pictured it would be. They’d been a couple for eight years and, like many others, they were waiting out the pandemic: planning an exuberant celebration that could be attended by Jaouad’s relatives from overseas and Batiste’s New Orleans family, complete with second-line parade. “When I got sick, it expedited that plan,” Jaouad says.

The wedding itself happened a day before Jaouad underwent bone marrow transplant surgery and five months after her leukemia returned. They were married in their then empty Brooklyn home, the floors swept clean of construction debris and rooms filled with flowers and candles. Batiste and Jaouad exchanged bread ties instead of rings, and he played “Unforgettable” on a rented grand piano. A tight-knit circle of COVID-tested guests were served fried chicken sandwiches and Champagne. The only thing the couple hadn’t thought of, it seemed, was finding someone to document the day. “It occurred to us that we did not have a wedding photographer on the morning of,” Jaouad remembers. “And Matt, of course, was like, ‘I’ll film the wedding.’ ”

Jon Batiste

Jon Batiste premieres the titular work in American Symphony.COURTESY OF NETFLIX.

That would be Matthew Heineman, who so intimately captures Batiste and Jaouad’s love story in Netflix’s American Symphony, acquired by the streamer and the Obamas’ production company, Higher Ground, after bowing at the Telluride Film Festival in August. Their makeshift nuptials are emblematic of a year in the couple’s life that was upended at every turn.

Heineman, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker behind Cartel Land and A Private War, met Batiste when the singer, musician, and Late Show bandleader composed the score for his 2021 COVID documentary, The First Wave. Drawn together by mutual respect, they planned a vérité-style road-trip movie tracing the journey to Batiste’s first symphony at Carnegie Hall. Then, on November 23, 2021, Batiste was nominated for a field-leading 11 Grammys—on the very same day, Jaouad started chemo treatments for her second bout with leukemia. “Life intervened,” Heineman says. “And as I have with almost every film I ever made, I was forced to really pivot.”

Shifting focus meant turning the lens toward Jaouad, who had already chronicled her first battle with leukemia at age 22 in her best-selling memoir, Between Two Kingdoms. “She didn’t want to be a part of it,” Heineman says plainly. “She definitely didn’t want to be the sick antidote to Jon’s success, and nor did I [want that]. I wanted to make sure that she was a fully formed artist and individual, in addition to being Jon’s partner.”

Jaouad appreciated the opportunity to offer a more complex view of the cancer experience onscreen. “Too often we see a glossed-over version of the illness narrative that ends in a cure, a sense of triumph, where you return from that experience wiser and stronger and braver,” she says. “A relapse is every cancer patient’s worst nightmare. This time around, I knew that my prognosis was not in my favor. That felt, to me, worthy of portraying from the trenches of treatment.”

Batiste’s foremost concern? “To protect Suleika and our family,” he says. “A lot of documentaries, especially with entertainers, there’s a lack of vulnerability. But the goal was to make something that would be very true to life. And life at that time happened to be Suleika having this seismic diagnosis and me having these seismic career milestones.” Batiste admits that agreeing to film warts-and-all was an exercise in faith: “It felt like it was much bigger than us. And even though it was more than we had bargained for going in, it felt as though this is what the spirit was leading us to do. It was a work of God that we had to complete to the end.”
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