Interview…Composer J. Ralph on Documentaries, Real Life Heroes and the Call to Action

J Ralph Interview BannerJ. Ralph is an Academy Award-nominated composer, singer/songwriter and producer. He is also the founder of the internationally award-winning music production company The Rumor Mill, and has written and produced the music for numerous Grammy winning artists, Oscar-winning films, and The President of The United States, Barack Obama.

Considered by many to have had a profound impact on the documentary medium, J. Ralph has helped elevate the experience of what it feels like to watch a documentary through his scores. Incredibly he has written and produced the music for 4 out of the last 5 Oscar winning/nominated documentary feature projects. In the 85 year history of the Academy Awards, J. Ralph’s song “Before My Time“, performed by Scarlett Johansson and Joshua Bell from Chasing Ice, is one of only three songs ever to be nominated for an Oscar from a documentary. It remains the only song ever to be nominated from a documentary when the film was not. J. Ralph is completely self-taught and does not read or write a single note of music.

J. Ralph believes the orchestra is the ultimate medium, boundless in philosophy and universal in scope. He has scored the back-to-back Academy Award-winning documentaries The Cove (about the dolphin captures in Japan) and Man On Wire (Philippe Petit’s 1974 illegal tight rope walk between the Twin Towers) followed by the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary Hell And Back Again for which he also wrote and produced the film’s sound design and end title song “Hell and Back,” which was performed by Willie Nelson.

We talked to Josh about his music, and his take on world issues and social awareness.


GoSeeTalk: ​I first remember seeing your name attached to Lucky Number Slevin. Talk about a great movie that went under the radar, and like it, the docs to which you’ve been attached are just as surprising. Since then you’ve worked on some of the most impacting docs in recent years. Can you talk about your now primarily documentary-based composing career, and how it’s evolved over time?

J Ralph_stillJ. Ralph: When I was 22, I was signed to Atlantic records, and I was always impressed by, and interested in, real moments of authenticity and uniqueness in our day-to-day lives. My friends and I were constantly trying to find interesting people and subjects to write about and really, I had always been obsessed with documentaries that were larger than life – each of these subjects certainly have beem.

When you’re a kid, you’re fascinated by the likes of Indiana Jones, because, when you look at the adventures of a character like that, everything they do seems so incredible. Then you get older, and you realize there are amazing people leading incredible adventures just like that, only in the most meaningful, and monumentally important quests for our cultures and our planet.

There was this perfect moment in time, starting around the time of Man On Wire where theThe Cove Theatrical line between accessible technology and professional equipment had eroded so far that you could make and produce documentaries that were almost indistinguishable from professional features. That technology has enabled these stories to be told with such a level of drama and creativity it drastically changed he way we interact. So now we’re at an intersection in time when social media and reality programming has forever changed people’s expectations of performance.

It has also infinitely raised the bar of what is believable and we can see how, on a daily basis, doctors, and politicians, even normal people live, and it has almost made it impossible for an actor to deliver a convincingly real performance to match it. This also brings with it a familiarity in the documentary, as well as a naturalness and authenticity that’s rarely found in performance or feature film.

That brings up something that is becoming increasingly common and abundant in our day and age – it seems anyone can be a camera man, but everyone, thanks to abundant and portable technology and social media outlets, can be a subject and have their lives shared or exposed. Has the line between “joes” and “pros”also eroded?

Kind of. I feel that to make a great film you, first, have to be an great storyteller. And just because everything “can” be documented, doesn’t make everyone a “documentarian”. Reason being is that not everything is an incredible, profound, or breath-takingly transcendent visual journey.

For me, if you’re able to find stories as magnificent as the ones we’ve grown up with, and present them in a way that is so cinematic, then it is a gratification that is almost unexplainable because at the end of the film, after being blown away by it all, you’re left with the realization that “what you just saw is real”. It’s not an article, or a re-creation based on truth, it is the truth, you know?

Case in point: The Cove. That is profoundly and infinitely impacting. I saw that some years back and am still blown away by it. That seemed like it was aided and made possible by that entry point of cameras and equipment, wasn’t it?

Well it was, but there’s way more to it than that. There was nothing “prosumer” about it, that was complete cinematic professionalism. They used military grade cameras and equipment, and everything was at the forefront of cinema. Price was still a factor, as the barrier to entry was no longer millions of dollars but these days you can also edit and produce the same level of film as the pros but at a percentage of the price.

The Cove is compelling simply because of the subject matter. Now film music, fairly or unfairly, has often been called “manipulative”, but when a film speaks for itself you probably want to stay out of its way right? What happens when you find you don’t need music? How do you go about adding it to the story?

What we’re trying to do is capture these incredible moments of life on screen and give viewers something to connect with. As soon you capture something, whether from above or behind, and you make a cut, you have altered the picture at this point. In fact, as soon as you have observed, you have changed the J Ralph stilltruth so to speak. So I work with people who understand and want to minimize that, and, like you said, we want to stay out of the way as much as possible.

The ever present goal is to keep from interacting with and touching these moments and situations. Even by taking a picture, you’re interrupting. Ideally we want to stay out of the situation, and doing so creates unique situations and moments that allow the truth to be received.

I can’t speak to any of the creativity of it, there’s just something I feel is a tipping point that keeps it from being manipulation, and our music simply supports the story and helps reinforce the scene. In a way that helps keep the narrative moving forward.

What I do with the music is create certain characters that embody the moment, with the situation, and I try to meditate on what this person would sound like, what these stories sound like, what this place sound like, etc. Then I try to create something that will subtly help the audience connect.

Well, a really good example of that is, one of your most recent works, the film Finding Vivian Maier. This is a woman whose entire life has been a secret and the banal part that she did share, as a nanny, still showed her uniqueness, her flair, and eccentricities. But she never let out the the most fascinating thing about her which were her skill as a photographer.

The movie plays like opening up an obscure jewelry box – one full of brilliance and surprising events which made up her life. Your score reflects the fanciful and playful nature to the story but also, sometimes, the darker side of Vivian. The most captivating thing of all is that it’s only by random luck her story was even unearthed and shared. When do you find yourself joining amazing projects like this?

FindingVivianMaier_BannerIt could be any number of times. I could be involved in the concept level, before they shot the story. It could also be during the final cut, or any point in the middle. I react instinctively to the story, or a person, or the cause.

Mostly what we at The Rumor Mill do is donate our fee to the production because we believe in the message of these types of projects. These films are all social issues and we are doing our part to help spread the word about what they represent.

You wrote the end credits song in Virunga and that film is nearly as impacting as The Cove. It’s equally as deflating because it shows you that this not only happening now, it’s an ongoing issue that probably won’t stop anytime soon. At the end of it, you’re left feeling helpless yet the most basic thing you can do is give to the cause that’s listed at the end of the movie.

Exactly, Virunga is one of those impact movies. And you can go to the site afterwards and help, and sign up and sign petitions, and help create awareness. There are very specific calls to action that we can all do. These are examples of the profound issues of our time. These are the kinds of movies that celebrate and expose the most important social and cultural issues happening.

To help make the statement louder, you bring somebody with the clout, recognition and presence of Youssou Ndour or, even though this isn’t exactly the same thing, Liza Minnelli. You’ve worked with a great many people who have influence and can help use their stature to bring gravity to the project. How difficult is it to get them involved?

Youssou Ndour

Youssou Ndour

They do bring incredible legitimacy to the project yes, and these songs are not random selections. I wouldn’t include these people if I wasn’t going for a desired effect. There’s a marriage between the music in the film and end credits song. Whether I’ve scored the film or not, I think about wanting to write a song aiming to help create connections, or maintain connections that have been started earlier. I try to help sonically recreate the story of the film in a song format. If there’s a song attached to a project like Virunga, it becomes a keepsake that helps bridge the audience to the subject.

With Garnet’s Gold, this guy spends most of his time at a pub singing old Broadway songs. He’s a poet in the end, but he went on this radical adventure into the Scottish Highlands to find some buried treasure. I view it as one of the most sophisticated stories about love and dreams and self-worth that I’ve ever seen. And the grand finale is the song with Liza Minnelli and Wynton Marsalis singing this kind of old-timey standard of a song. Sean Lennon plays guitar on it, and I wanted something that could embody the entire story that you just watched, the entire subject, and the whole film culminates in this scene with the song. That’s a really great cinematic moment.

Also, the use of the Youssou Ndour song was meant to embody the soul of Africa and to be a coda to the cause. We felt that having those voices spoke the truth of the Rangers’ bravery and hope. It became a mantra for heroism and tribute to the those who have risked their lives to protect this park and make the world a better place.

So I wanted something very dramatic and powerful and there are no more powerful voices than Salif Keita, Youssou Ndour, and Fally Ipupa. They are three of the most powerful music icons in the world, let alone Africa. They have awareness and followings equal to that of say Bono and Peter Gabriel. Most anyone who knows anything about music knows them and their art form because those voices are so transcendent.

You’re right. There is a great power they so easily exude. I’ve spoken to James Newton Howard, and Alex Heffes who worked with Youssou Ndour on the scores to Blood Diamond, and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and I agree, there are few better people to go to if you want that kind of impact. There’s a haunting feel to his voice but really he makes a connection and is a symbol of perseverance.

Precisely, it is a direct connection to the core of human emotion. He is the once-in-a-lifetime direct conduit to human creation, and the human spirit. It was a huge honor to work with all three of them, and an even bigger honor to work with them as their songwriter because these people are some of the greatest songwriters themselves.

They performed it, but you wrote the lyrics, right?

Yes, I wrote in English, translated it to French, and with each singer we translated into the other languages. There are five languages in the song, and each of the artists sing in their own language. But the chorus is in English, “We Will Not Go” which is meant to protect against the people trying to move in on the park and invade it.

Virunga Rangers

Films like this go back to what you were saying before about finding that your fantastic fictional heroes, like Indiana Jones, have been replaced by people who are climbing mountains, stopping extinction, and protecting parks. This really is incredible how you’re casting light on these type of people.

100% right. And the great thing about it all is the way things are being told. It makes you feel like you are watching Indiana Jones, or Oskar Schindler, or Rick Blaine in Casablanca, etc. but in the end, the people are real and, the most amazing thing about it is that you have the ability to be that person as well. You can get up and change your life and impact your friends and the world around you, all by making choices and being conscious and living in awareness.

You have some interesting and inspirational films coming up that will take you into 2015. What projects can you talk about?

Next I’m working with Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi who did the 2008 documentary about Youssou Ndour called Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love. Her film is called Meru and is a story about these three amazing mounting climbers, an Ernest Shackleton level of documentary, who were the first to climb Mount Meru. It’s one of the most captivating examples of friendship and hardship and perseverance and conviction to achieve your goals. It’s really mind-blowing to see the physical feats of endurance they went to. All in the pursuit of climbing this mountain that has never been climbed.

J Ralph Interview Header

After that there’s Racing Extinction which is made by the same film team that made The Cove. That will be like the definitive expose on species extinction. It charts where we are as a civilization, the importance of all the different species, the oceans, the plankton in the ocean, etc. and how rapidly stuff is changing. It will address how rapidly we are affecting it, but it will identify very specific things we can do to stop this train.


Thanks to J. Ralph for his time. His most recent works are the Sundance Film Festival’s award-winning documentary Chasing Ice for which he wrote and produced the score and the Academy Award nominated song “Before My Time” performed by Scarlett Johansson and Joshua Bell. In the entire history of the Oscars, “Before My Time” is one of only three songs ever nominated for an Academy Award from a documentary. Other recent projects include the score to the experimental film Maladies starring James Franco, Catherine Keener, David Straithern, and Alan Cumming as well as the score/soundtrack album for the autism documentary Wretches & Jabberers by Academy Award winning-director Gerradine Wurzburg.

J. Ralph’s scores are included in the Museum of Modern Art’s Permanent Collection of Film and Media in New York City.