Magazine article Variety

Power of Song Helps Serve Docs' Messages

Magazine article Variety

Power of Song Helps Serve Docs' Messages

Article excerpt

Documentary filmmakers are, increasingly, turning to big-name artists for songs to underline their messages or call attention to their projects. And their work is, more than ever, being noticed at awards time.

One of this year's five Oscar song nominees was from a nonfiction film: "The Empty Chair" from "Jim: The James Foley Story" by Sting and J. Ralph. This is Ralphs third nomination for a song from a documentary; he was previously nominated for 2012's "Chasing Ice" and 2015's "Racing Extinction."

Seventeen of the 91 songs eligible for this year's best song Oscar emerged from documentaries, and several of them were performed by high-profile writer-performers - everyone from Common ("The 13th") and Tori Amos ("Audrie & Daisy") to Sia ("The Eagle Huntress") and Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor ("Before the Flood").

One documentary song has even won an Oscar: Melissa Etheridge's "I Need to Wake Up" for the 2006 climate-change film "An Inconvenient Truth." Five others have been nominated prior to this year, the earliest in 1963 when "More" debuted in the Italian travelogue "Mondo Cane."

Why do they do it? Certainly not for the money, filmmakers and composers say. It's often more about the issues presented or a desire to help bring attention to them.

"I'm always drawn to the emotional connections you can make with the audience and the subject matter," says Ralph.

"I've focused a lot on social documentaries, things about the war or the environment or species extinction or medical issues," he adds. "One of the ways to help people relate to these issues is with a song. A song can help create a bigger connection in a way that facts and figures and talking heads can't do."

Says Sting, who collaborated with Ralph on "The Empty Chair," for the film about murdered journalist Jim Foley: "It's probably harder to write a song for a documentary than a blockbuster. The parameters are much more defined. If you're writing a song for [a fiction feature], they want a top-40 hit, you don't necessarily have to do much with the plot, it's just a vibe. Writing for a documentary demands a lot more thought and effort."

The legendary Police bassist and singer initially felt "it was totally beyond my powers to do something commensurate with what I'd seen." But when he imagined his children in captivity, tortured, or both, in a foreign land, he hit upon the idea of leaving a place at a table and saying a silent prayer: "I'd found a metaphor that was not only specific to the film but would also mean something in a more general way."

For the teen sexual-assault documentary "Audrie & Daisy," singer-songwriter Amos felt she needed to embrace "the pain, the terror, the anger, the loss, the grief, and the uplifting part of Daisy and Delaney's story," referring to two rape survivors whose story is told in the film.

"There is a challenge as a songwriter, and a huge responsibility with a documentary, because Audrie isn't alive but her mother, Sheila, is," Amos says. "Sheila has become an activist, and it was really important that Sheila and Daisy and Delaney felt like the song represented them.

"It was about structure, making sure that every word and every note was moving the story forward. That, for me, was tricky, until I landed on the idea of fire" - an image alluded to several times in the song. …

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