J. Ralph Q&A: ‘Virunga’ songwriter
In 2012, musician J. Ralph earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, and it was a historic bid. "Before My Time," which he wrote for the film "Chasing Ice," became only the third song from a documentary to be recognized by the academy. This year he's penned two more tunes that could join that exclusive group: "We Will Not Go" from "Virunga" and "Until the End" from "Garnet's Gold."
The two songs represent opposite ends of the musical spectrum: "Until the End" is an old-fashioned standard performed by Liza Minnelli and Wynton Marsalis while "We Will Not Go" is a defiant anthem featuring iconic African musicians Youssou Ndour, Salif Keita and Fally Ipupa. But despite creating music in a wide variety of styles, he insists, "There's no difference between any form of music. You're trying to distill an emotion and a moment and capture something." Listen to our podcast chat below.
For "Garnet's Gold," whose score he also composed, the creative approach was clear. The film tells the story of the title character's hunt for treasure in the Scottish wilderness, where he nearly died two decades ago. "When I saw [the film], the end of it just wanted to be this old-timey kind of standard," he says. "And for me, as soon as I thought that's what it should be … it had to be Liza."
"Virunga" was quite different. To express the dedication of the park rangers fighting to protect the Congo's Virunga National Park, he wrote "We Will Not Go" in English and "worked with each of the artists to have their languages represented … having some French to unify them as that is the official language, but we wanted it to be a prideful representation of each of the specific languages of Wolof, Bambara and Lingala."
The chorus, however, is in English, "because we wanted the English people trying to come to exploit [Virunga's natural resources] to be fully clear that we will not go, that we are here to stay."
In addition to those musical contributions in the past year, J. Ralph also composed the score for "Finding Vivian Maier," which, like "Virunga," made the academy's shortlist for Best Documentary Feature. He has also written music for the Oscar-winning documentaries "Man on Wire" and "The Cove," as well as the Oscar-nominated "Hell and Back Again."
He's currently working on two more documentaries: "Meru," about three climbers braving the titular mountain in the Himalayas, and "Racing Extinction," a follow-up to "The Cove."
J. Ralph is uniquely drawn to documentaries because of their "inspiring" subject matter. "When you're a kid, you grow up and kind of idolize Indiana Jones or Superman or something really larger than life," he says, "and then when you get older you realize that there are characters out there … doing incredibly astounding feats of compassion or creativity or risk to help make the world a more beautiful or better place."
At a time of unprecedented access to audiences and quality filmmaking tools, he believes this a "golden age" for documentaries and that the genre is "at the forefront of cinema," influencing all other forms of visual storytelling. He's so passionate about the medium that he donates his talents to projects he believes in, "kind of like a grant if you will, because we want the projects to succeed."