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How Sting and J. Ralph told James Foley's story through song

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The Oscar-nominated song, “The Empty Chair,” is from “Jim: The James Foley Story,” a documentary about the American journalist who was killed by ISIS in 2014.

For most of us, the only image we know of James Foley, the American journalist who was beheaded by ISIS in 2014, is from his videotaped execution, which brutally announced the arrival of ISIS to the Western world. 

But last year, Foley’s childhood friend, Brian Oakes, made a documentary to try and give the world a fuller, richer picture of his friend’s life and personality. Now the song that plays at the end of “Jim: The James Foley Story” is nominated for an Oscar. It’s an odd contender in a race that includes songs from three movie musicals where the songs are part of the narrative: “La La Land,” “Moana” and “Trolls.”

The film, which premiered at Sundance and aired on HBO last year, isn’t easy to watch. But through interviews with Foley’s family, close friends and fellow journalists, as well as archival interviews with Foley himself, you feel like you get to know this restless young man who was compelled to enter dangerous places like the Syrian front line.

The documentary begins with a note that the execution itself will not be shown, which is a relief, but it hangs over the entire story like a ghost. That’s where songwriter J. Ralph and Sting come in.

“There’s a picture of me and him watching this film together, where I’ve got a guitar in my hand and we both look pretty grim,” recalled Sting, who met Ralph in 2008 through Philippe Petit, when Ralph was scoring the documentary “Man on Wire” about the French tightrope walker. Ralph is a regular in the documentary field, and was nominated for songs he wrote for “Racing Extinction” and “Chasing Ice.”

Composer J. Ralph and Sting collaborated on the Oscar-nominated song "The Empty Chair," featured in the HBO documentary "Jim: The James Foley Story."
Dikayl Rimmasch
Composer J. Ralph and Sting collaborated on the Oscar-nominated song "The Empty Chair," featured in the HBO documentary "Jim: The James Foley Story."

“He got me into his studio under false pretenses,” Sting recalled. “Said, ‘Come and see my studio.’ And then after I’d marveled at [his] wonderful jukeboxes and Duke Ellington’s piano, he says, ‘You want to see a movie?’ And I said, ‘Mmm... okay.’ So then we start watching this thing, and I only knew about James Foley, like everyone else, from the [news]. And so I watched the film, and was immediately drawn into it, and getting to know Jim as a person through his family and through his friends — [I] kind of fell in love with this man, and his quiet heroism and compassion for others. At the end of the film, he said, ‘Will you write the song to this hymn I’ve written?’”

“Originally I was writing the score for the film,” explained Ralph, “and the hymn that he’s referring to is the main theme of the film that I was developing.”

“And I said, ‘No,’” Sting recalled, chuckling. “‘I don’t think I can do that. It’s beyond my powers to write something commensurate with how I feel.’ And he said, ‘Well, think about it.’ I said, ‘Okay, I’ll think about it.’ But I said, ‘Give me the letter that Jim wrote.’”

The film describes how Foley wrote a letter to his family while he was in captivity. His friend, a Danish journalist who was held in the same prison, memorized the letter before he was released so he could recite it to Jim’s family.

“I brought the film back to my wife, Trudie, and we watched it together again,” Sting said. “It was Thanksgiving and I sat with my family, and I just wondered, you know, how I would feel if one of my kids was in captivity. I have six kids. What would I do? I’d probably create some ritual at a dinner table. I’d leave a place for them, an empty chair. And that spark ... Oh, that’s the metaphor. And that’s how I can write this song. So I wrote it that night, and sent it to him the next morning.”

“This is on Thanksgiving,” Ralph said. “James was taken on Thanksgiving, a few years prior. And then the next day, it says ‘Sting’ in the email. ‘The Empty Chair,’ with the lyrics. And so I ring him back up after I read it. You know, I was just blown away. Because writing’s always difficult, and to write something compelling and moving is ever evasive. And he’s like, ‘Is it okay?’ And I said, ‘Okay? Can you at least make it look difficult for the rest of us?’”

Sting recalled the most telling line in the song:  "I forget which member of the family said it, but I sing: ‘I was always late for every meal. And it just is so him, and it’s so human, and so funny in the middle of a sad song.”

“We wanted to focus the end of this film to be positive and hopeful," Ralph said. "And to give each person a moment alone with Jim, and to fully collect their thoughts and their own emotions of what they just experienced. And if you send people back out into the world without a ferryboat back to their own lives, I mean, it would be very tough.”

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