Oscar Song Contenders Sting, J. Ralph Capture Heartbreak and Heroism in ‘Jim: The James Foley Story’

TheWrap Oscar magazine: Songwriters discuss how they used late journalist’s own words to write “The Empty Chair” for documentary

J. Ralph and String
Matt Sayles

This story about J. Ralph and Sting first appeared in the Nominations Preview issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

Composers J. Ralph and Sting collaborated on the meditative “The Empty Chair,” capturing the heartbreak and heroism in the documentary “Jim: The James Foley Story.” Journalist Foley was killed by ISIS in 2014, his beheading horrifically recorded in a video the extremist group shared on social media.

What did you know about James Foley?
STING I knew what happened to him but had never seen the footage nor would I ever want to. I watched the film, and it was devastating emotionally. And then he [Ralph] said, “Do you want to write a song for the end of this film?” I thought it was beyond my powers to do that — I was just too emotionally drained. I said “Let me think about it, but I think the key would be to get the letter he wrote that was read by his brother in the film. I want to see that letter.”

It was around Thanksgiving about a year ago, and my kids were around and I was thinking, “Imagine if one of them was in captivity, how would I feel? I would leave a place for them at the table and hope they would return and … ” — ah, there’s the metaphor. Then I went to the letter and cherry-picked descriptions of Jim — like he was always late for every meal, and the shaft of light he would use to find what time of day it was. I compiled it like a crossword, but without the metaphor I couldn’t do this. It was specific to the story, but universal enough to be a song. Once we found that, I wrote it that night.

J. RALPH He was like, “I’m honored that you asked me, but I don’t know if I can access these emotions. This story is just so heavy.” And then less than 24 hours later an email comes in. He said, “I don’t know what happened, it just came to me.” And I said, “Can’t you pretend it’s hard?”

That’s how creation happens. You’re thinking, thinking, thinking — nothing, nothing, nothing and then it arrives.
You kind of have to open a channel somehow and it just comes through. I don’t take much credit for it, to be honest with you. It was written by the family and friends and what they said about him.

J. RALPH It’s also about giving a vulnerable, honest performance. That song is a live recording. That is Sting uncovering the story right there. It was not rehearsed and not something that he’d been playing for years and years.

I remember we had conversations about it, and we were exploring his octaves. He said, “I could sing it higher and it would sound different.” But it would just be drawing attention to him, so he wanted to fade into the background and wanted this to be an intimate, honest, vulnerable performance. Which it is.

STING It is incumbent upon us to tell the truth as we see it, especially in a world where truth is now in question. We need journalists who are independent and who are truth-tellers. I think James Foley is a very important archetype to represent true American heroism that’s grounded in compassion and kindness and courage, speaking up for others. It’s not a “shoot-’em-up” fake heroism. It’s real. And I think we need that right now.

Click here to read more from the Nominations Preview issue of TheWrap Oscar magazine.

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