Composer adopts unique approach to autism documentary

In the ongoing renaissance of innovative music scoring for documentaries, composer-songwriter J. Ralph, who scored such recent docs as “The Cove” and “Man on Wire” and made song contributions to “Crazy Love,” has certainly played a part. But his scoring work for recently released autism docu “Wretches and Jabberers” has taken on a strange life of its own, birthing a generation- and genre-spanning companion soundtrack after the fact, all composed with a recording philosophy that closely mirrors the film’s subject.

Ralph was tasked with scoring Gerardine Wurzburg’s film, which follows two autistic middle-aged men who have find an artistic release in writing, earlier this year. As he prepared a song to play over the end titles, he got the idea for a full-length record exploring the experience of autism, with different singers on each song.

He began work on the project with two friends, veteran SoCal roots-rocker Ben Harper and starlet-singer Scarlett Johansson, and then followed collaborators’ recommendations and his own personal wishlist. His cold calls to a plethora of singers yielded fruitful results: Norah Jones, Carly Simon, Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons), Devendra Barnhart, Judy Collins, Vashti Bunyan, Stephen Stills and British folk icon Martin Carthy were enticed onto the record. The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir even invited him to stay in his San Francisco home while waxing his contribution.

The film’s theme of voiceless individuals discovering a mode of self-expression was key to Ralph’s songwriting; he refused to play his songs for the singers before they entered the studio, essentially treating their earliest attempts to interpret the songs as finished versions.

“Maybe half of the people (asked to record) said, ‘Yes, I’d like to do this, can you send me the song?’ And I said, ‘I’d rather not, I’d like your discovery of the song to be here in the studio, because once you’ve discovered it, it’s no longer a tenuous, vulnerable experience for you, so this way will create a much more vulnerable recording.’

“These two gentlemen (in the film) are at the precipice of discovering their own language and what it means to have a voice, so I wanted to telegraph that into the recording process. To have these great artists discovering these songs for the first time with a little trepidation, not that bombastic confidence that you can get later on.”

Ralph’s biggest coup was recruiting Nic Jones, a legendary British folk musician whose guitar style was an admittedly major influence on Bob Dylan. After suffering a catastrophic car accident in 1982, Jones had completely ceased recording — his take of “Pretty Words Lie” on Ralph’s soundtrack is his first recorded performance since the accident.

Ralph first spoke to Jones’ wife, who eventually invited him to play Jones the song he had written, but cautioned him, ” ‘You might come all the way to London, but if he doesn’t like the song, he’s not going to sing it,’ ” Ralph recalls.

“So I just got on a plane. I didn’t have any place to stay, and I didn’t have a studio booked, but I just really believed it would work,” Ralph says. “The parallel here is that of having one of the greatest voices ever, then having it be taken away and trying to find it again. These guys in the film never had (a voice) and are also trying to find one. There’s something so uncanny about that.”

The soundtrack will be released digitally on Jan. 11.

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