Only one original song Oscar ever has been awarded to a work from a documentary — Melissa Etheridge’s “I Need to Wake Up,” from 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth — yet this year there are several standout contenders from the nonfiction world, including three songs from films on the Academy’s documentary shortlist: Common, Karriem Riggins and Robert Glasper’s uplifting civil rights plea, “A Letter to the Free,” from Ava DuVernay’s 13th; Sia’s inspirational “Angel by the Wings,” from The Eagle Huntress; and Mike McCready’s “Hoping and Healing,” from Gleason. Also in song contention are Sting and J. Ralph’s “The Empty Chair,” the moving coda to Jim: The James Foley Story; Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ cautionary “A Minute to Breathe,” from Leonardo DiCaprio’s environmental doc Before the Flood; Tori Amos’ “Flicker,” from Audrie & Daisy; Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings’ resilient anthem “I’m Still Here,” from Miss Sharon Jones!; Michael Levine’s “Cateura — Vamos a Sonar (We Will Dream),” from Landfill Harmonic; and Nicholas Pike’s “On Ghost Ridge,” from 100 Years: One Woman’s Fight for Justice.
A powerful song not only adds a meaningful musical dimension to any story, but it also brings added buzz to its film. And Academy voters increasingly are paying greater attention to songs from docs. In 2012, J. Ralph’s “Before My Time,” from the climate-change documentary Chasing Ice, became the first song to garner a nom since Etheridge’s win. Earlier this year, for the first time in Oscar history, two of the five nominated songs came from documentaries: J. Ralph and Anohni’s “Manta Ray,” from Racing Extinction, and Diane Warren and Lady Gaga’s ” ‘Til It Happens to You,” from The Hunting Ground, a doc about sexual assault on college campuses (the song later became the first to be nominated for an Oscar, a Grammy and an Emmy).
The right song can help create a mood that sums up the spirit of the film. “I’m Still Here,” which, like many of these contenders, plays over its film’s end credits, became a battle cry for Jones in the face of her fight against pancreatic cancer (she died Nov. 18 from the disease). “I remember [Sharon] saying to me, ‘I just really want to tell my story,’ ” says Dap-Kings saxophonist Cochemea Gastelum. “I said, ‘OK, let’s start from the beginning, where you grew up.’ She would talk to me, and I’d help her fashion the lyrics. There were a couple of other people in the room, and they started coming up with this groove.” The song, credited to the full band, has taken on an extra dimension following Jones’ death, says Gastelum. “Now that she’s gone, I hear the song, and it’s like the meaning is, she’s still here. Her presence is still here. Her energy is still here”
“Hoping and Healing” similarly was a personal exercise for Pearl Jam guitarist McCready when he tackled writing about his friend, Steve Gleason, as the former NFL player learned to live with ALS in Gleason. “Knowing Steve for 10 or so years and seeing his struggle influenced my music,” says McCready. “I was inspired by my amazing friend who, despite his life-altering condition, gives people hope and, therefore, healing.”
Even when the songwriter doesn’t know the subject, writing a song to represent someone’s life can be a daunting responsibility. Sting initially was so disturbed by the story of Foley — a photojournalist who was beheaded by ISIS — that he wasn’t sure he had anything to contribute. He had to remind himself, he says, that “your job as a songwriter is to be empathetic, where you put yourself in someone’s shoes and see the world through their eyes.”
For docs that take on broader issues, such as sexual violence or the environment, a song can become a rallying cry for change. That’s the role Ross and Reznor (who won an original score Oscar in 2011 for David Fincher’s The Social Network) saw for “A Minute to Breathe,” which took them three weeks to write after scoring Before the Flood. They wanted to match the tone of the film, which “partly makes you angry, partly makes you sad and partly makes you feel activated to do something,” explains Ross. Striking a balance between art and advocacy was the toughest challenge. Notes Reznor, “We’re not trying to hit you on the head with a literal interpretation.”
Most of these songwriters already are well established in music but see writing songs for documentaries as a different means of expression and a way to learn more about the world around them. McCready is hooked after Gleason. “I would love to do more documentaries,” he says. “Anything that makes me feel, learn something new or is a solution to a problem is interesting to me.”
This story first appeared in a December standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.