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Documentary ‘American Symphony’ stands out

By Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service
Published: December 1, 2023, 5:56am

Streaming this week on Netflix is one of the best documentaries of the year, “American Symphony,” directed by Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning filmmaker Matthew Heineman. While Heineman is known for his war and combat documentaries “Cartel Land,” “City of Ghosts” and “Retrograde,” as well as “The First Wave,” about the COVID-19 pandemic, “American Symphony” is his second documentary portrait of a musician, following his film “The Boy from Medellin,” about the singer J Balvin.

“American Symphony” somehow manages to be both, as Heineman follows musician Jon Batiste through the composition of his first symphony — during which he scooped up five Grammys for his album “We Are” — while his wife Suleika Jaouad battles leukemia. Heineman’s fly-on-the-wall observational style bears witness to every moment big and small, high and low, during this high-stakes moment in Batiste’s life, from taking us backstage at the Grammys to onstage at Carnegie Hall; from intimate moments including Batiste and Jaouad’s wedding, to anxiety attacks from the stress. It’s a beautiful, revealing portrait of two people at this singular moment in time, and an astonishingly honest love story about what it truly means to stand by someone in sickness and in health. Streaming now on Netflix.

Recent documentaries

It’s also a great time to catch up with some of the other best documentaries of the year that are now available on streaming, including “Bobi Wine: The People’s President,” which follows the political ascendancy of Ugandan musician and opposition leader Bobi Wine. Performing politically and socially conscious music made Bobi Wine a folk hero, and he was eventually elected to public office and ran against Uganda’s autocratic President Yoweri Museveni despite incredible violence, assassination attempts and kidnappings committed by the regime against his campaign. The film depicts almost a decade of Bobi Wine’s life and political career, capturing his family life with his wife Barbie, and is a powerful portrait of one man standing up for democracy in his country. Ugandan co-director Moses Bwayo captures shocking footage on the ground, and has even had to seek political asylum in the United States due to his involvement with the film. Stream this powerful documentary on Hulu and Disney+.

Also available to stream is the searing documentary “20 Days in Mariupol,” the debut feature from Pulitzer Prize-winning Ukrainian photojournalist Mstyslav Chernov, who was a part of the Associated Press team who remained in Mariupol to document the siege of the Ukrainian city by Russian forces in 2022. The film is an act of witnessing, remembering and cataloging the atrocities committed there, committing them not only to memory but to the public record. Rent “20 Days in Mariupol” on Amazon Prime Video and Vudu.

Another acclaimed documentary from 2023 is Maite Alberdi’s “The Eternal Memory,” a story of selfless love that transcends time and memory. The central couple is Augusto Góngora and Paulina Urrutia, who have been grappling with Augusto’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. A former journalist and cultural commentator in Chile, Augusto’s life’s work has been about building an archive of memory for his country, and now he must do the same in his own life, with the help of Paulina, an actress and former minister of the National Council of Culture and the Arts of Chile. Stream this moving love story on Paramount+.