You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Songs Sell Docs’ Messages

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.”

More Music

  • Chambers Brothers

    George Chambers, of 1960s Hit Group the Chambers Brothers, Dies at 88

    George “Pops” Chambers, singer and bassist for the Chambers Brothers, best known for the 1968 hit “Time Has Come Today,” died Saturday at 88. “The best big brother you could ever have,” Willie Chambers wrote on his Facebook page Sunday night. “I am so sad, and at the same time, I’m so glad to have [...]

  • Stock market

    Trading In Music's Futures: How to Cash In on the Industry's Gold Rush (Guest Column)

    The music industry is entering a time of financial prosperity thanks to the widespread use of streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal. According to a recent report by Musicwatch, 77% of all internet users in the U.S. stream music, while Goldman Sachs projects a revenue pot of $34 billion by 2030. Finally, the [...]

  • Vampire Weekend - Brian Robert Jones,

    Vampire Weekend, Mumford & Sons, Rufus du Sol to Headline Okeechobee Festival

    Today, Insomniac Events announced the lineup for the fourth edition of Florida’s Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival. The four-day event will return to Sunshine Grove in Okeechobee, Florida March 5-8, 2020 with a multi-genre lineup led by Vampire Weekend, Mumford & Sons, Rufus du Sol and Bassnectar, along with over 100 other artists across a [...]

  • Member of South Korean Girl Group

    Korean Pop Star Sulli Dies at 25

    Korean pop star Sulli was found dead at her home near Seoul on Monday. She was 25. Her manager found her body and alerted the police. The manager reported that the star, whose real name was Choi Jin-ri, suffered from depression, and police said that they were working on the assumption that she had died [...]

  • Jay Frank

    Jay Frank, UMG Senior VP and Digital Music Veteran, Dies at 47

    Universal Music executive and digital music veteran Jay Frank died Sunday after a battle with cancer. He was 47. UMG chief Lucian Grainge remembered him in a message sent to the company. “Dear Colleagues,” it reads. “I’m deeply saddened to tell you that our colleague and friend Jay Frank has passed after a recurrence of [...]

  • Boomtown Rats Feature Doc Launches From

    Boomtown Rats Feature Doc Launches From New Music Banner BeyondTNC (EXCLUSIVE)

    Bob Geldof and the re-formed Boomtown Rats will talk about their legendary punk band in a new feature doc, “Boomtown.” It is one of the first two films from a new music producer-distributor that has been formed by Beyond Entertainment and TNC Media – BeyondTNC. BeyondTNC will be launching “Boomtown” to international buyers in Cannes, [...]

  • Zedd

    DJ Zedd Banned From China After Liking 'South Park' Tweet

    Zedd has been “permanently banned” from China after the German DJ liked a tweet from the “South Park” Twitter account. Zedd, whose real name is Anton Zaslavski, announced the news via his own Twitter account: “I just got permanently banned from China because I liked a @SouthPark tweet,” he wrote. I just got permanently banned [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content