‘American Symphony’

Suleika Jaouad is seen smiling with her husband, Jon Batiste.

Suleika Jaouad said she and her husband, Jon Batiste, “experienced the highest highs and lowest lows” of their lives during her bone marrow transplant.

Suleika Jaouad seen in hospital bed during stem cell transplant

Suleika Jaouad during stem cell transplant at MSK.  

Life often imitates art.

But in the documentary film American Symphony, life interrupted art instead.

As a result, a love story for the ages unfolded on-screen, a team of specialists saved a young woman’s life, and a campaign was born that will help people with cancer for years to come.

The film was originally intended to document the debut of a symphony composed by Jon Batiste, the Grammy- and Oscar-winning musical phenom and former band leader of The Late Show With Steven Colbert.

But during production, Jon’s wife, Suleika Jaouad, received her second bone marrow transplant at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK), 13 years after she was first treated at MSK for acute myeloid leukemia.

Suleika gave viewers a rare look inside the life of a stem cell recipient, drawing on her skills as an Emmy Award-winning and New York Times best-selling writer, advocate, and cancer survivor. “We rode out the highest highs and the lowest lows of our lives,” she recalls. “The movie morphed from a music documentary into one about love and art and survival — about what happens when the human spirit is tested again and again.”

The film was directed by award-winning Matthew Heineman, who spent virtually every day for more than six months with Jon and Suleika, capturing intimate moments and then crafting the story.  The powerful film is a result of his unique compassion and understanding as the child of a cancer patient himself.

“This was a very personal film for me. My father battled cancer for almost two decades, and his life was saved by an experimental treatment he received at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center,” says Matt.

Suleika Jaoaud and Jon Batiste seen smiling with MSK's Dr. Sergio Giralt

Suleika and Jon with MSK’s Sergio Giralt, MD, at the documentary film premiere

To mark the movie’s premiere on Netflix, MSK launched an important campaign with NMDP, which operates the world’s most diverse blood stem cell registry.

Called “American Symphony: Become a Lifesaver,” the campaign has a goal to increase the number of people who register to donate blood stem cells, particularly in ethnically diverse communities where finding a donor match can be especially challenging.

At a special screening of the documentary, Suleika and Jon shared their immense gratitude with 150 members of the MSK team. “This film comes as we celebrate 50 years of pioneering stem cell transplants at MSK,” reflected Sergio Giralt, MD, bone marrow transplant specialist. “And we will continue to move this field forward.”

Suleika seen smiling with MSK team members at film screening.

Suleika (center) and Jon (back row) with MSK team members at the ‘American Symphony’ film screening