The final night of the Virginia Film Festival closed out with two high profile films: Todd Haynes’ May December, and the Jon Batiste documentary American Symphony.
Todd Haynes has long been one of my favorite filmmakers. Haynes is a true individual who leaves his fingerprints on every film he makes. From Safe to The Velvet Goldmine to Far From Heaven, I’m Not There, and Carol, he has made some of my favorite films over the last thirty years, so I was more than excited to see his factionalized take on the infamy of the Mary Kay Letourneau case.
For those who need a refresher, Letourneau created a tabloid sensation by having a sexual relationship with one of her sixth grade students. Letourneau was found guilty of rape and sentenced to prison where she gave birth to a child created from their coupling. After Letourneau was released, she was sent back to prison after being caught with the young man again, and then gave birth to a second child while behind bars. After being released again, she married the young man, who had since reached a legal age.
Haynes takes Letourneau’s case and views it through a melodramatic, sometimes very dark, occasionally drily funny, and ultimately an oblique lens. Natalie Portman plays Elizabeth, an actress who in a mercenary fashion infiltrates the family of Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Joe (Charles Melton) who serve as stand-ins for Letourneau and her victim/husband. Elizabeth intends to play Gracie in a film version of Gracie’s life, but her intentions are far from pure.
Full of Haynes’ usual style and craft, the film sometimes doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. At times it has the vibe and pacing of a psychological horror film, but if that were the intent, May December doesn’t complete its mission.
In fact, I found it difficult to sort out what Haynes wanted the audience to feel. I’m quite comfortable with Haynes mixing melodrama and true emotion, but I largely found the latter missing here. May December is a chilly film that, in gauging the response of the full house I saw it with, will likely be polarizing to future viewers.
Both Moore and Portman are quite good, but it’s Melton who provides the only true sense of an emotional core. Melton’s claim to fame prior to May December was Riverdale, and his sweet, broken-hearted performance of a man who is easily taken advantage of is a strong statement on what happens to a person who suffered a childhood trauma, and is now a victim of stunted growth.
If there had been a deeper dive into that storyline, I think Haynes would have produced a stronger film. That being said, most critics have stood strongly behind the film, and even though I didn’t connect with the film last night, I am curious to see what I might think of it on a second viewing.
May December is by no means a bad movie, but I do think it’s an unsuccessful one. Considering my adoration of Haynes’ previous work, let me clearly state that it brings me no pleasure to share my conclusion.
I do want to add one caveat: A film by Todd Haynes is always worth seeing, and I do wonder if on a second viewing, my opinion might adjust. There’s a lot to take in here, and maybe I just didn’t get on the film’s wavelength.
If the bulk of your experience with Jon Batiste is his role as the cheerful bandleader on Late Night with Steven Colbert, American Symphony will likely be a revelation to you. If you are deeply knowledgeable about Batiste’s musical career outside of Colbert, well, American Symphony will likely be a revelation to you too. The original intent of the film was to show Batiste prepping for what was to be his grand artistic statement, ‘American Symphony,’ to be performed one night only at Carnegie Hall.
Standing at the pinnacle of his career with 11 Grammy nominations for his album ‘We Are,’ Batiste was at the artistic prime of his life, and ready to deliver an even bolder musical statement. And then his partner, the very talented author Suleika Januad was diagnosed with leukemia for the second time. Suleika first contracted Leukemia when she was 22, and after ten years in remission her affliction returned.
What might have been a more celebratory documentary of a man’s triumph in his field, instead became a more intimate portrait of a couple under great duress at a time they thought would be among the best of their lives. Batiste continues to work on his symphony while Suleika receives treatment in the form of a bone marrow transplant that will keep her in the hospital for at least a month.
Alternately joyful as it showcases Batiste’s symphony taking form, and harrowing as Suleika’s day-to-day condition runs the gamut from good day to wretched day, the film American Symphony is a tremendous achievement on its own terms. Director Matthew Heineman uses tight close-ups that bring us so near to Batiste and Suleika that there are times when you almost feel like you’re in the room with them, and perhaps you should step away. But Batiste, Suleika, and Heineman clearly intended to bring us so deeply into their space that their sadness and joy relates to the extremes of life, and the film makes you feel it.
And let me be clear, there is great joy in this film. Much of which is found in watching Batiste create. I was only vaguely familiar with Batiste’s work outside of The Late Show, but I’ve always taken note of how light-fingered he is when tinkling the ivories. There is something about Batiste’s hands. They are huge, but the fingers are long, slender, and dexterous. It is as if those hands of his were created to play piano.
What I didn’t know was that Batiste can do almost anything musically. He can sing, he can compose, and he plays more instruments in the film than I could keep track of. He is a truly wondrous talent. As you see him creating his symphony, what you also learn is that bright smile and the ease at which he performed intros and with pop artists on The Late Show gave you no clue of the depth of his imagination.
During rehearsals for the Carnegie Hall performance of American Symphony, you see Batiste stretching himself, feet well off the sand and head just above the ocean, to create something both avant-garde and digestible. When it finally comes time for the Carnegie Hall performance, we get to hear his extraordinary intro in full, and it is astonishing. Then disaster strikes. All the power goes out on stage. None of the monitors or the high-end technology is accessible. Batiste waits for a moment, and then starts playing a solo, turning what seemed like a dire problem into an opportunity. I suppose you could say he’d seen much worse through Saleika’s suffering, and he smoothed this bump in the road over with his improvisational gifts.
As great as that moment is, nothing can quite prepare you for the finale of the performance: an almost cacophonous blend of native-American chants, tribal drums, and a swelling orchestra that sounds like it is pushing so hard to the outer limits of what’s possible that the performance seems to be on the brink of imminent collapse the entire time. But it doesn’t collapse. It holds against what feels like odds most impossible. I thought the shiver down my spine might not ever relent.
The same can be said for Batiste and Suleika. Their world together feels constantly on the brink as well, but as the film ends in low key fashion with the two of them going for a walk, you see that they did not collapse either.
American Symphony is to my mind a titanic achievement. It’s one of the best shot and edited films I’ve ever seen. It is about art, music, and perseverance. But most of all, it is about love. A mighty, mighty love. It is a film that will rob you of your breath, force you to fight back tears, and somehow, despite matters most grim, fill you with a great sense of hope.
There is a moment midway through the film when Batiste is closing out a concert with his band, Stay Human. He tells the crowd that the final song is for Suleika. And then he pauses for what feels like an extraordinary length of time. Heineman’s camera pans up at Batiste’s face and holds. Batiste’s head is tilted upward, his eyes closed, summoning the strength to play. Then the camera pans down to Batiste’s hands as they rest on the keys. Still, he does not play. The camera goes back up and then down again. Finally, Batiste begins. The opening chords are beautiful, but as Batiste continues, he starts to strike the same keys over and over again. Fast, then faster, and then faster still, until his fingers become long, willowy blurs. It’s as if he is trying to send all his pain out of his fingertips and into the piano. I could feel my own heart pounding, like it wanted to leave my chest.
I’ve honestly never seen anything like it.
After the film ended, Batiste and Heineman came out for a Q&A. They were greeted with rapturous applause. I jumped up so fast that my reading glasses flew from my pocket, never to be found. An inconvenience for someone writing out a piece on his phone, but one I don’t mind managing. Not after this experience.
After the Q&A, Batiste performed a 20 minute solo set, playing both a melodica and a piano. Had he wanted to go for twenty hours, I think most of the crowd would have given up their sleep and missed their flights. I’m not a religious man, but while watching the film and then seeing and hearing Batiste play live, it was hard not to feel the presence of something more on the screen and in the Paramount Theatre. I suspect I will hold this memory close until my expiration date. What a glorious evening.
I would like to thank my editor at Awards Daily Clarence Moye for tipping me to the festival organizers. I would also like to share my heartfelt thanks to Renee Tsao for extending the invitation to me, Ilya Tovbis pfor making sure I had everything I needed to navigate the festival, and Atlee Bamber for arranging my travel and lodging. Despite being exhausted from an 18 hour travel day (not Atlee’s fault) and losing my voice almost in its entirety, this has been one of the great highlights of my professional writing career.
I would gladly do it again.