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 Ralph’s 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. She adds that some songwriters “might have a social-activism gene” but that they “might not be the type of writer that can go after the dark side.”
Reznor and his writing partner Atticus Ross saw a cut of the Fisher Stevens-directed, Leonardo DiCaprio-produced “Before the Flood,” which documents the impact of climate change around the world.
“We both have young kids,” Reznor says. “If there’s something we can do that helps enlighten people, we have to do this.”
They started by enlisting help to score the film itself (Gustavo Santaolalla, Mogwai) but, Reznor says, halfway through, they considered writing a song “that could survive on its own and also work in the context of the film — not an eye-rolling ode to Mother Nature.”
“What if it ended on a real, whispered-quietly-in-your-ear, intimate, unsure, melancholy note, how would that play? That was the inspiration for the shape of the song,” Reznor says.
And while he wasn’t sure about singing it (he felt “uncomfortable, exposed, vulnerable”), his co-writer Ross insisted that Reznor’s vocal be retained: “I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate performance for that moment — the idea of it being uncertain, and avoiding any kind of manipulation. The idea of the film, beyond the vast scope, is about an individual solution [to the crisis].”
For Common, “songs at the end of films sometimes sum up the situation, from an information perspective and also an emotional perspective. It really has to cover the whole journey of the movie.”
So for “Letter to the Free” for Ava DuVernay’s “13th” — which deals with the mass incarceration of people of color — Common told his fellow writers Karriem Riggins and Robert Glasper, “I want us to capture the spirit of going through slavery, Jim Crow and mass incarceration, and come out fighting and come out hopeful. That was the mission.”
Not just a rap, it reaches into other African-American musical genres by incorporating soul singer Bilal and jazz solos by trumpeter Roy Hargrove and flutist Elena Pinderhughes. He had to persuade DuVernay to include it, he says, but, “she’s creating something that has a chance to shift society, and that’s the type of art I want to be a part of.”
Veteran movie songwriter Diane Warren’s “Til It Happens to You” from 2015’s “The Hunting Ground” helped draw wide attention to the campus-rape crisis, then wowed the Oscar audience with its Lady Gaga performance and later won an Emmy. She has penned song “Prayers for This World” for the “Cries From Syria” documentary debuting at Sundance.
Says Warren: “Nothing can change hearts and minds like the power of a song. That’s always been true; think of the ‘60s and how songs really changed things. So to have the opportunity to have a song in a film that can really touch people and get a message across, I think is important. ‘Til It Happens to You’ really changed things.”