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.
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 with the film, just as it was for 2019’s American Factory, which went on to win the best documentary feature Oscar, and for 2020’s Crip Camp, which went on to be nominated for it.
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), 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 performed there in support of it.
Netflix, which has landed multiple nominees in the best documentary feature Oscar category in three of the last eight award seasons, also has Laura McGann’s The Deepest Breath and Roger Ross Williams’ Stamped From the Beginning in the running this season.