Sting has written plenty of tunes for movies before, including three previous best original song Oscar contenders. But he felt an added responsibility when he penned the lyrics to “The Empty Chair,” the end-credits song in Jim: The James Foley Story, the moving documentary about the American journalist captured and beheaded by ISIS. The song, with music by J. Ralph, was among the five finalists for best original song announced Tuesday morning (Jan. 24).
“The stakes are higher when you’re writing about a person who really existed, a person with family and friends you want to honor,” he tells Billboard. “I’m glad I found the metaphor of the empty chair. I said no at first [when Ralph asked]. I said ‘This is beyond my powers.’ I curated the song from what [Jim’s] family and friends said about him. It’s their song.”
Ralph, who is celebrating his third nomination, hopes the nod will bring attention to the film. “That’s why we go anywhere we can to try to help people see this movie and see the importance of the story and this incredible heroism and compassion that was Jim Foley.”
“We did it because we loved the subject of the movie,” Sting continues.“He was an incredible human being who I am so privileged to have gotten to know through the film. I feel that being nominated can shine more light on this film. People should see it. It’s an extraordinary, powerful and important film.”
The song was among 94 shortlisted by the Academy as eligible. Given the sheer numbers and that voters don’t tend to select end-credit songs, its nomination is all the more validating. “That was one of the biggest compliments that we were most appreciative of,” Ralph says. “Numerous people would see the film and say to us, ‘I can’t imagine seeing the film without that song. I don’t know how I would be able to get up and go out of the theater. We wanted it to be [a song] of hope.”
To hear Sting tell it, performing the song in front of Foley’s family at last year’s Sundance Film Festival was far more nerve-wracking than it will be when he sings in front of hundreds of millions of people watching the Feb. 26 telecast worldwide. “It’s pretty easy,” he says. “I just stand there and open my mouth and out it comes.”
As to whether Sting and J. Ralph plan to work together again, Sting says, “It would be great to if the right project comes along. We trust each other.” He skips a beat before adding, “We should do a cartoon next though.”