Photo: Courtesy of SM Entertainment
Korean Pop & Film Star D.O. Exceeds 'Expectation' On New EP
Over the years, D. O. has come to be known as an artist in constant motion. His latest EP, 'Expectation,' is an aural treasure that reflects his longstanding creative drive.
The ability to transmit the most genuine emotions and make the audience truly feel the lyrical meaning of a composition is what sets apart the best singers. It’s an earnest gift that furthers the linkage between artist and audience, endowing any performance.
In the competitive K-pop industry, few are the vocalists who boast this virtue, and one of them is — unquestionably — EXO’s D.O. He has become a paragon of excellence, a man whose irresistible voice has enthralled beyond the borders of South Korea.
As part of EXO, one of K-pop’s most legendary groups, D.O. reached stratospheric heights and a much-anticipated career as a soloist. And though it took him nearly 10 years to strike out on his own, his July 2021 solo debut, Empathy, landed with great success – and enthusiasm for more offerings.
Now he’s back again with his second EP, Expectation. Out Sept. 18, the record is an aural treasure that lays out D.O.’s greatest strength: bending any melody to his will with an evocative tessitura with exceedingly emotional effect.
Debuting With EXO
A native of Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, South Korea, the artist born Doh Kyung-soo developed a musicality during his elementary school days, with singing being his creative medium of choice. Growing up, he constantly captivated with his maturing vocal abilities, and in 2010, he won a competition that prompted SM Entertainment — a K-pop label that is one of the heavyweights in the industry — to recruit him. Given his shy nature, Doh Kyung-soo kept his new reality as an idol trainee low-key from people until his subsequent debut two years later.
Amid considerable anticipation, SM Entertainment began introducing the 12 members of its new boy group (the first one since SHINee’s debut in 2008). Doh Kyung-soo — now going by the stage of D.O. — was revealed alongside power vocalist Baekhyun as part of the lineup with the sublime prelude single, "What’s Love," at the end of January 2012.
With a larger-than-life concept including superpowers and a metaphysical storytelling, the upcoming act would be known as EXO, taking its name from the exoplanets. To broaden the expanse of possibilities and impact, the group was split into two parallel contingents: EXO-M (who were molded to promote in China) and EXO-K (a group mainly focused on South Korea).
EXO officially broke into the K-pop sphere on April 8, 2012, with "Mama" — a bold and colossal production composed by SM’s revered singer/songwriter Yoo Young-jin — the title track from their first EP, ushering a soon-to-be volcanic trajectory. D.O. impressed as one the group’s vocalists with a beautiful technique, showcasing how his versatile voice could smoothly glide across all types of genres.
EXO’s Success & D.O.’s Expanding Artistry
While many weren’t initially convinced by EXO’s premise, the group’s reputation skyrocketed in the summer of 2013 with the release of "Growl," the lead single from the repackaged version of their first studio album, XOXO. All 12 members of EXO-K and EXO-M united under the same banner to elevate the spectacularity of the production, subverting expectations and flaunting their undeniable chemistry.
"Growl," an effortlessly magnetic hip-hop cut, received widespread acclaim and topped South Korean charts. As a result of the single’s popularity, EXO became million-sellers for the first time in their careers, and they won 14 first place trophies in the weekly music shows.
K-pop idols tend to combine their group efforts with other individual endeavors, and for D.O., acting was always a calling. In 2014, he landed his first supporting role in the film Cart, also contributing to the soundtrack with the song "Crying Out."
In the SBS-produced series, "It’s Okay, That’s Love," D.O. had a breakout portraying Han Kang-woo, a young, aspiring writer who ends up becoming a central piece to the protagonist’s narrative arc. It was a heart-wrenching interpretation, with D.O. rendering vulnerability and tenderness over a storyline that revolved around sensitive topics such as domestic abuse and mental health. The performance resulted in a nomination as Best New Actor in the category of Television at the Baeksang Arts Awards — one of the leading entertainment ceremonies in South Korea — and an accolade for Best New Actor at the APAN Star Awards.
Meanwhile, EXO’s status continued to rise in the ranks of the K-pop industry, transforming into an example for future generations. Following the triumph of "Growl," the group released the extended plays Miracles in December, Overdose and Sing For You, and their second studio album EXODUS, along with its repackage Love Me Right. (With some lineup changes in between, the separation of EXO-K and EXO-M was unofficially blurred). They also made their Japanese debut in November 2015 with the arrival of their single album Love Me Right ~ romantic universe ~, which peaked at No. 1 on both the Oricon and Billboard Japan charts.
In 2016 D.O began to show the range of his acting abilities through leading roles. He starred in the movie Pure Love and the web-series "Be Positive," dabbling with genres like romance, drama, and comedy. Another important project for him was My Annoying Brother, a dramedy where he brought Go Doo-young to life, a judo athlete who loses his sight and has to deal with a brother that suddenly returns after disappearing for years. The movie turned out to be a success, and D.O. was recognized as Best New Actor during the Blue Dragon Film Awards in 2017.
Though his notoriety as an actor evolved in prominence, his commitment to EXO and singing never faded away. After all, it remains his first love. In February 2016, D.O collaborated with Yoo Young-jin to release a special duet titled "Tell Me (What Is Love)," a song performed during EXO’s first tour a few years earlier and was part of SM Entertainment’s newest musical initiative, "SM Station."
At this point, his artistry stretched all-encompassing: a protean entertainer regarded as one of the finest vocalists in the world of K-pop, and a renowned idol-actor. D.O. seamlessly created a balance between his own artistic growth and EXO’s ascension.
"We always say to each other that we should really be together as a team," he said in an interview with The Korea Herald in reference to EXO’s symbiosis. "As I have continued my acting and idol career without causing trouble, I want to continue to do that for the rest of my life."
A Temporary Farewell With "That’s Ok"
By the end of 2018, the now nine-member act had completed four tours, sold 10 million record in their home country — making history as the first group to do so in the 2000s — and even performed at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics closing ceremony, which earned them the title of the "the Nation’s Pick." But at the same time, a period of change was quickly approaching.
For every K-pop boy group, there comes a phase where its members need to fulfill a mandatory military conscription of almost two years. EXO entered this pivotal term in 2019 with the enlistment of Xiumin, the oldest member born in 1990, and the collective focus (momentarily) slowed down to make way for different ventures like subunits and solo debuts. In turn, D.O. continued expanding his filmography with his first protagonist role on the silver screen with the historical K-drama "100 days my prince," and a major participation in the feature film Swing Kids, incarnating a North Korean soldier who gets immersed into the world of tap dancing while imprisoned in a war camp.
Despite a string of back-to-back professional accomplishments under his belt and the public eagerly awaiting for his next project, D.O. unexpectedly announced his early enlistment in May 2019. "I hope that everyone will always be healthy and have [days] that are filled with things that make you laugh," he wrote in a message posted on EXO’s official fan website. "I will carefully serve and return to greet you all with a healthy image."
Before enlisting, D.O. recorded the gentle, self-penned ballad "That’s Ok" in an uplifting farewell. "I’ll shine on you with all the light I have / So don’t hide yourself. Will you show me you?" He sweetly croons accompanied solely by acoustic guitar strings. "Be comfortable with the way you are / That’s right. It’s okay to be okay."
The track became a source of healing and comfort for a lot of his peers in the industry. One notable example is IU, arguably the most lauded K-pop female soloist from the last decade, who offered her own rendition of it, later saying in a radio interview that "That’s Ok" is the first song that moved her to tears in 10 years.
D.O.’s Long-Awaited Solo Debut: Empathy
After 19 months of military service, D.O. was discharged in January 2021, just in time for the release of EXO’s seventh mini-album, Don’t Fight The Feeling. The EP was their first musical offering in two years, with Xiumin and D.O. rejoining the group. Don’t Fight The Feeling became their sixth record to surpass one million copies sold; more than a comeback, it was a celebration of EXO’s legacy in the industry.
To say D.O.’s solo debut was highly-anticipated isn’t an exaggeration, and with his talent, it became a matter of when, not if. So, in the summer of 2021, when SM Entertainment confirmed his first EP, Empathy, many rejoiced. The eight-track album casts a soothing ambience, and it was an important opportunity for him to "make the music he wanted to do" and to etch his feelings in the skyline through his most genuine songwriting.
"One of the thoughts that came to mind was love, an emotion that anyone can feel," D.O said in an interview with the South Korean newspaper The Dong-a Ilbo. "I also thought that it would be good to provide comfort like the previously released ‘It’s Okay’, so I took on the challenge of writing lyrics myself."
Empathy tempers D.O.’s rich vocals with minimalistic arrangements where the main components are nostalgic-laced guitar chords, a reflection of his well-known tranquil aura. He delivers solace at the length of the record, with the titular song, "Rose," collating the fragments of an endearing admission of love. But perhaps the brightest diamond is "Si Fueras Mía," the Spanish version of the B-side, "It’s Love (다시, 사랑이야)," a tune that portrays D.O. longing for a love unmet, and could only be reached in dreams. His wistful tone captured the romance ingrained in the language, and for some part, it also symbolized a throwback to EXO-K’s cover (from almost ten years ago) of the famous bolero called "Sabor a mí."
EXO’s Seventh Album & Expectation
Just as he reached his 10th debut anniversary with EXO in 2022, saw D.O. take on his second leading role on television in the series "Bad Prosecutor." But as most of his groupmates completed their military service by 2023, the prospect of a second solo release and an EXO comeback was drawing near.
Suho, the group’s leader, confirmed EXO’s return in the last days of 2022; in June 2023, news surfaced they were gearing up their seventh full-length album, EXIST. The group dropped the pre-release singles "Let Me In" and "Hear Me Out," preparing the stage for the record’s titular song "Cream Soda."
The July 2023 release was the first time D.O. stepped into the South Korean music shows since the release of the group’s fifth studio album, Love Shot, in 2018, and it marked EXO’s first promotional cycle since 2019’s Obsession. Seeing them together — except for Kai and Lay, who are currently inactive — enjoying a performance again was a treat for fans and K-pop artists alike.
Over the years, D. O. has come to be known as an artist in constant motion, always with a new endeavor lined up. Case in point: Before he completed his military service, he was selected as the protagonist of the sci-fi movie The Moon, the release of which nearly coincided with the end of EXO’s latest album cycle.
Simultaneously, the excitement for D.O.’s second mini-album increased, especially after he revealed in an interview with the South Korean outlet SportSeoul that he had finished the structuring of it in May 2022. "I wanted to prepare early, so I did it in advance before I went into another shoot," D.O. said, also adding that it would contain "a lot of acoustic songs." The first teaser and the name of the record, Expectation, was unveiled in August.
True to his title, the record’s essence derives from a contemplation about the desires and consequences of love — from professions of devotion to its contradictory nature. Lead single "Somebody" talks about the yearning for a significant other who can embrace us through our flaws and walk hand-in-hand carefree.
That sense of hope expands to the melodies of "Wonder" and "I Do," until melancholia hits on the second half of the album with "Lost," "Ordinary Days," and "The View." Throughout, D.O.’s alluring timbre draws ruminations in a sonic canvas that certainly will linger as another harbor for his ever-evolving journey.
Photo: Courtesy of SM Entertainment
K-Pop Veteran KAI Feels Freer Than Ever On 'Rover': "It's Going To Be A Very Memorable Period For Me"
On KAI's third solo mini album, Rover, out today (March 13), the EXO and SuperM member finds freedom through the multiplicity of sounds and concepts that have defined his 11-year journey.
When K-pop's emblematic group EXO debuted in 2012, each member was assigned a superpower as part of their overarching lore. Kim Jongin, then a fresh-faced 18-year-old, was given the ability to teleport, promptly appearing and disappearing throughout their many music videos. He also received an alias: KAI, whose Chinese character "开" means "to open."
Eleven years later, KAI has manifested his nickname; his individual success has opened doors to three solo albums, countless world tours as part of EXO and supergroup SuperM, and several luxury brand contracts (he is an ambassador for Gucci and a representative for Yves Saint Laurent Beauty). It makes sense that he sees himself as someone who can't be constrained — and that he named his third EP Rover.
As the title insinuates, embodying multiple things at once has always been KAI's specialty. He is notoriously shy off-camera, an introvert who stays silent unless spoken to, but who unravels in winding thoughts and warm laughs when comfortable. At the same time, he is also one of K-pop's most lethal performers, with a voice that is as soft as sinful, and ballet-trained movements that spellbind any audience.
Rover is KAI's latest self-actualization. In a Zoom call with GRAMMY.com, he is all smiles as he mentions that this album is the truest to his creative desires so far. Whether visually or sonically, the six-track collection (plus a second installment of his conceptual video series, FILM : KAI, to be released on March 20) fuses everything that he is known for: the teleporting, the hypnotizing dance moves, the many characters he can embody, and his versatility in approaching rhythms that go from reggaeton to R&B.
He ponders about the limitations of social media and receiving love in tracks like "Black Mirror," and "Say You Love Me," while longing for freedom in "Bomba" and the project's title track. "Here I am in your face/ Focus on every single expression/ Y'all buzzin', catch me if you can," he sings in the latter, making reference to one of his favorite movies. In the music video, he also hints at Billy Elliott, another formative movie in his life, while adopting multiple personalities and namesakes. There are no boundaries to KAI's artistry, after all.
Ahead of the release, GRAMMY.com caught up with KAI about the meaning of freedom, his relationship with social media, and how it feels to be an idol for over a decade.
You ask to be called "Mr. Rover" in the EP's title track. Who is Mr. Rover?
That's me! [Laughs.] [The song] has a story about a wanderer and a message of wanting to be free, and since I want to be free on stage, and as an artist in general, Mr. Rover is me.
What is freedom to you?
I put a lot of thought into that, but honestly, I still don't know. I do feel free, and I do feel freedom when I'm on stage, and in order to feel that true freedom, I think it's not just throwing away something that's inside of you. It's more like trying your best and putting more effort into that freedom that you're seeking.
A lot of my fans say that I seem very happy and free on stage. I really want to be like that. I realized that, in order to be free, there's a lot of things that I have to try harder behind the stage.
Indeed, one of your main characteristics is that on stage you are very confident and charismatic, while off stage you are a little more shy and warm-hearted. What's on your mind when you're on stage?
I don't think that much when I'm on stage. This is intentional, because I try not to think about anything and just do my best. Just enjoy that moment. If I think a lot, then it'd be difficult for me to concentrate. I really want to get to that level where I don't have any thoughts and I can just feel free and do the performance as it is.
On stage, you can usually see me smiling and laughing a lot, but that's because the more I get nervous, the more I start smiling and laughing, and the more I enjoy it. Once I feel a sense of pressure is when I truly start to enjoy [it]. I realized that I must be crazy to be enjoying all this nervousness. [Laughs.]
Besides freedom, what are three main words that you associate with this album?
The first one is "SNS" [Social Networking Service, or what Koreans usually call social media], because it's actually a theme in the album. To add up, the album also has a message of loving yourself and not caring about what others think.
As in one of my tracks, "Black Mirror," when the display screen is black, it tells you to see yourself reflected there and to love yourself more. "Say You Love Me" [is] a song about desiring love. On SNS, we care a lot about likes, followers, and what other people think or how they see us.
The second keyword is "performance." It is a very important part of this album, because I really did what I wanted to do. There are a lot of performances to see and hear altogether, so when I was preparing [them], I tried to show different aspects of myself.
And my third keyword would be "happiness," because that is the emotion I felt the most while preparing for this album. I really enjoyed it, and I felt a lot of happiness in my daily life. I think that it's going to be a very memorable period for me.
Since your first keyword is SNS, what is your personal relationship with social media?
Honestly speaking, if I wasn't a celebrity, I think I wouldn't have been using SNS at all. But since I am, I do have to [use] it, and I think of it as a way to communicate with my fans.
In my album, tracks such as "Black Mirror" or "Rover" have a message of being free and loving yourself, and I [prepared] a lot of curated content to show to my fans. I do have a desire for [my fans] to like that, but I want to say that it doesn't matter because, as a human, it's the same for me. I watch YouTube too, I watch all those [Instagram] Reels at night before I go to sleep. So you know, after all, I'm doing the same thing [as everyone].
Your second keyword is performance, and you seem very happy that you could do everything that you wanted for Rover. What new things were you able to show through your performances this time?
The ["Rover"] music video is very well-made and fun, and another FILM : KAI is coming out soon. The first FILM : KAI was released before my first music video [for "Mmmh"], so the role of it was to explain the whole concept and help the listeners understand what I was trying to say.
This time, FILM : KAI is coming out after the music video [for "Rover"], so I think it could be a chance for the viewers to organize their thoughts and compare with what they have been thinking while watching the music video, so they can realize some different charms [within it].
You talked about your first album, KAI (开), and now you're on your third album. What are some of the differences between them, and what have you improved on since your solo debut?
For the first album, when preparing the songs, it was more about finding what I wanted to do as KAI and what I'd like to show people. For the second album, it was more about focusing on what people would like to see and what they wanted from me. I did feel a bit pressured and stressed, but it was one of the steps in the process of trying to find what I really want to do.
For my third album, I was able to find what I want to do and start doing it. As an artist, I grew a lot, but that's why I think it was a new challenge. It's something new that I'm attempting.
If it wasn't for the first or the second albums, the third one wouldn't even exist. I even had some songs that I saved during the [previous] albums because I thought I wasn't prepared before, but now I'm ready to release them to the world. As a soloist and an artist, I'm just developing and growing. There may be a lot of lacking skills still, but this album is very special to me, and I like it a lot.
You've been an idol for more than a decade now. What is the most important thing you learned so far?
Being an idol is a job too. The line between my daily life and my life as a celebrity is very ambiguous. From time to time, I could feel more stressed out, and as it is a job where I can share emotions with the public, there's a bit of pressure on that too.
The most important thing to do is to take care of my mental [health] and mindset, and this realization was a chance for me to grow. I've been thinking deeply on how to become a better person, how to live a happy life as a human being, and I think that, as KAI, I really want to share more positive and happy thoughts with my fans and the people all around the world.
Cross-Pacific Pop: Album Sales Boom For Asian Breakout Solo Artists
Asian solo projects help redefine bandmembers, such as Lay Zhang, with music that is reaching American album-buyers in a big way
We called Lay Zhang a musical diplomat when he was named promotion ambassador for GRAMMY Festival China last April. A Chinese founding member of the Korean-market boy band EXO, Lay's Oct. 19 release, Namanana: 03, has entered new territory for any Mandarin-pop album.
Lay debuted at No. 21 on the Billboard 200 with 23,000 traditional album sales boosted by another 1,000 equivalents from streaming and other digital. The album's 22 tracks are half in Mandarin Chinese and half in English, recreating each of the 11 songs as bilingual.
This success shows that K-pop helps put artists on blast but U.S. album buyers are developing an appetite to go beyond the superficial frame of boy band marketing and fame, also known as "idol groups" in Korea.
The K-pop solo mixtape Hope World by J-Hope from BTS debuted at No. 63 last March on the Billboard 200 and rose from there to No. 38, making him the best-selling K-pop solo artist earlier this year, and Lay's No. 21 is more properly M-pop because of its Mandarin Chinese. That's despite Lay's K-pop roots in EXO.
But meanwhile on Tuesday Oct. 23, J-Hope's BTS bandmate RM delivered a mixtape of his own, titled Mono. With just three days of sales, it debuted at No. 26 on the Billboard 200 for Nov. 3. Traditional album sales were 16,000 plus 5,000 equivalents. Some tracks recall Brian Eno's solo albums, and its subdued and enveloping emotion allows RM's poetics and raps to reach out in a different way. As usual with RM, the word play in English is unexpected and the raps artistic, while his use of Korean, English, or Korean-English together goes wherever he decides to take it.
Terms like "K-pop" or "M-pop" can seem belittling marketing categories, like the term "boy band" or "idol group," but they are useful buckets to compare sales quantities. In general, cross-Pacific pop has had its best album-sales week ever in the U.S. for solo artists, and some tracks even have a Latin feel. However big this new listening culture might grow, it's attracting commercial attention and cash. That's a good sign for any artist who wants to write future chapters in this suspenseful series.
Photo: VCG/Getty Images
Lay Zhang's Music Diplomacy: From EXO To GRAMMY Festival China
The multi-talented star lends his unique voice to raise awareness as Promotion Ambassador for the inaugural festival on April 30 in Beijing
Lay Zhang's many talents — which include the ability to speak Chinese, English and Korean, and years of artistry as the main dancer for EXO — add up to a unique combination he's putting to work to raise awareness for GRAMMY Festival China, coming up on April 30 in Beijing. As Promotion Ambassador for the festival, Lay will stand alongside Bravo Entertainment, China Music Vision and the Recording Academy to bring the exciting event to fruition in its inaugural year.
In addition to his role in the South Korean-Chinese boy group EXO, Lay is an actor, composer, record producer, songwriter, and author of Standing Firm At 24. Through all of his work, he has demonstrated that love is the center that motivates his personal drive.
Speaking to his solo composition "I Need You" during a Billboard interview, Lay said love "can sometimes be like a habit, but also refreshing and touching. I believe that love, from what I have felt, is being able to do even the smallest of things for your loved one thousands, if not tens of thousands, of times."
As Promotion Ambassador, Lay will lend his positive message of love to GRAMMY Festival China's multicultural footprint.
"This amazing event will be a real celebration of music and live performance," said Neil Portnow, President/CEO of the Recording Academy, "and a unique opportunity to embrace the integration of many cultures. I sincerely hope more and more music lovers in China enjoy the GRAMMYs, and share the excellence and happiness that music brings."
The debut GRAMMY Festival China will feature GRAMMY winners Daya and Macy Gray; GRAMMY nominees James Bay, Carly Rae Jepsen and OneRepublic; and GRAMMY winners Phoenix and Pharrell Williams. Chinese artists Williams Chan and Nicolas Tse also join the lineup.
Tickets are available for purchase now at www.damai.cn.
Photo: Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Netflix
Inside 'American Symphony': 5 Revelations About The Jon Batiste Documentary
'American Symphony,' a new Netflix documentary about five-time GRAMMY winner Jon Batiste and his wife, author Suleika Jaouad, is an uncommonly intimate and incisive work. At a screening, Batiste and the filmmakers revealed how it came together.
Director Matthew Heineman planted his flag with gritty, warts-and-all documentaries about warfare, drug cartels and the devastating impact of the pandemic. As such, the proposition for American Symphony — a beloved musician's journey to his Carnegie Hall debut — might seem like lighter fare.
But as Heineman expertly draws out, this is a whole other kind of battlefield.
From its first scenes, it's abundantly clear this is not just about Batiste's titular, boundary-bulldozing work from 2022. That story is twinned with a different kind of symphony — the one between human beings, loving one another through unimaginable duress. As Batiste labored over this expansive, freighted production, his wife, Between Two Kingdoms memoirist Suleika Jaouad, reckoned with the return of her leukemia.
From Batiste's palpable panic to an (unshown) bed filled with blood, American Symphony is unafraid to stare this tribulation in the eyes, as it follows Batiste's inimitable creative process. Even as it builds to its crescendo, Heineman keeps it bracingly human-level — and the result is a triumph.
A week after American Symphony hit Netflix, Heineman and Batiste sat down with the film's co-producer, Lauren Domino, and moderator Joe McGovern of "The Wrap," at Brooklyn Academy of Music for a post-screening spin through the documentation process. Here are five revelations from the discussion.
Working With Jaouad's Health Was Beyond Delicate
First, it must be said: by Batiste's telling, Jaouad is "doing great" today — in fact, she had to miss the event, as she had just headed to Costa Rica. (In a sweet moment at night's end, Heineman pointed his phone at the audience for a mass shout-out: "We love you, Suleika!")
But when the author was in the throes of her rediagnosis, nothing was certain — and given the pandemic was still in full swing, every precaution had to be taken. "After the bone marrow transplant, she didn't have an immune system," Heineman said. "If she got a cold, she could have died."
As such, "It was very complicated from a producing point of view to navigate the puzzle of Jon's insane life, and then trying to find our way into the hospital, and then back out again, and back in again."
But they pulled it off, in the most concise way possible — which, given the unbelievable amount of footage they got, is something of a miracle.
1,500 Hours Were Filmed For American Symphony
As this writer came across Batiste in various situations, over the last couple of years — including in Las Vegas around the 2022 GRAMMYs, and the American Symphony premiere — a camera crew conspicuously trailed him everywhere he went.
Clearly, it was for something down the pike. And that something accrued an unbelievable 1,500 hours of footage — about 62 straight days. This could have resulted in a nine-hour bonanza, like The Beatles: Get Back. Or even an entire television series.
But to Heineman's credit, he resisted going maximal, and opted for a fundamentally quiet story. In fact, in the lynchpin scene of the film, no words are said at all.
About That Scene…
American Symphony arguably hinges on this scene: Batiste sits alone onstage, at the piano, before a smallish audience. He dedicates his next piece to Jaouad. And then he sits silently for 95 seconds; his microexpressions, breath and hands are poetry. Finally, the notes come.
"It's so easy in documentaries… forcing an essay, or an idea, through dialogue, through words, through voiceover, or through talking heads, or whatever," Heineman said. "[I wanted to] hold that space to allow you all to interpret that moment in your own way."
As Batiste clarified, the concert in question was a totally extemporaneous affair, where Batiste played whatever his antenna picked up.
"There'd be moments where I would even sometimes get up from the piano and leave until something came," he recalls. "And it felt like at that moment, there was a prayer that really needed to be specified and spoken out."
When The Power Went Out At Carnegie, Adrenaline Shot Through The Roof
Another of the most powerful scenes in American Symphony is during the titular performance itself — and, naturally, it's also of Batiste playing piano.
Although it was inconspicuous to the audience during the symphony's world premiere, panic had set in at one point: the power had gone out onstage, rendering the microphones and electronics dead.
Right then, he pauses and spins a melody out of the air, reflecting and refracting sad and sweet footage of their couplehood, which plays out onscreen.
"If you could see my blood pressure spike in the control room," Domino said. Of co-producer Joedan Okun: "We're sitting next to each other, and we're like, 'This is what we have anxiety dreams about, and now it's happening.' This guy is used to shooting in war zones. Jon is a genius, and they're just cool as cucumbers."
Suffice to say, when it turned out their 13 cameras didn't kill the power, the relief was unimaginable. And as Okun correctly observed in the moment, "This is a cinematic wonder."
The Ending Was Almost Much Different
True to Heineman's facility for smiting darlings in the editing stage, he was unafraid to completely change the ending at the eleventh hour — even though that version was, by all accounts, tremendous.
"Jon did his encore, which is what happened in real life… this beautiful rendition of the national anthem," Heineman said. "But it just felt like we weren't paying attention to the rest of the film that we had just made, and we didn't feel the two of them together."
"So, I guess I wanted to have my cake and eat it too," he continued. "To have the culmination of American Symphony, but also the symphony of life that we witnessed over the past year, come together with the two of them walking forward."
Right then, against a velveteen, winter sky, Batiste and Jaouad walk together into the future. Regarding both symphonies, personal and musical, together as one: Bravo.