J. Ralph and Sting's ode to an American hero — slain journalist James Foley

Sting found the story of slain photojournalist James Foley “emotionally devastating” but inspiring.

“It’s an example of true American heroism. Not that gung-ho, shoot-‘em-up … this is real heroism,” says the British musical superstar. “Stand up, speak your mind at your own danger to protect the people around you. That’s the kind of America we want.”

Sting is seated beside celebrated documentary composer J. Ralph at an outdoor table at the Sunset Marquis. The two collaborated on the song “The Empty Chair” for the HBO documentary “Jim: The James Foley Story,” which traces Foley’s career as a photojournalist in conflict zones through his kidnapping and execution in Syria by ISIS.

Ralph says, “One of my favorite lines in the film is when one of Jim’s fellow journalists says, ‘A lot of people say he shouldn’t have been there. Well, you wouldn’t even know where “there” is if it wasn’t for him.’”

“Jim” agonizingly tells Foley’s story in the words of his friends, family and fellow prisoners, even beyond his very public execution. Ralph wanted to write a song to, as he puts it, “ferry the viewer back to reality” after the wrenching film.

“We wanted to imbue it with his bravery and selflessness,” the twice-Oscar-nominated composer says. At the film’s screening at the Sundance Film Festival, “Some of the former captives said [the captors] would wait two weeks before they gave them any food. They would throw in one piece or half a chicken. He would get everybody [back] and he would dole everything out to make sure everyone got an equal piece, even at the risk of him not getting any. He was that guy.”

“He was such an amazing guy. Kind, thoughtful, brave,” says three-time Oscar nominee Sting. “Just the kind of person we need.”

Ralph says, “We didn’t want to focus on the tragedy but on the family’s love and how that love can be kept alive. It’s not just about a physical presence as the only thing to be prized.”

Ralph and Sting had met through famed tightrope walker Philippe Petit when Ralph was writing music for the Oscar-winning documentary on the Frenchman, “Man on Wire.” Years later, Ralph asked Sting to write the lyrics for the hymn-like music he had created for “Jim.” The Englishman was reluctant, given his own very emotional response to the film.  

“Then,” Sting says, he and wife Trudie Styler “had dinner with our kids, and I thought, ‘Empty Chair.’ Perhaps if Jim was in my family, we’d have an empty chair at the table, waiting for him to come back.”

For the lyrics, Sting referenced quotes from the film — Foley’s mother warmly noting he was “late to every meal”; a fellow captive saying they would mark the days by a shaft of sunlight in their cell. Then there was the letter home Foley gave to one of his cellmates. Fearful of reprisals for smuggling out messages, the prisoner committed Foley’s words to memory.

“It was very important to Sting we have that letter,” says Ralph, and “Empty Chair” does play like a message home. “He said, ‘I want to soak up as much personal story as I can.’ It’s almost as if a piece of Jim were in the song, kind of coming through the letter, if you will, back to everyone like a warm blanket after watching that.”

Ralph’s accompaniment is as spare as a prison cell: A lone piano, sounding naked notes with the occasional deceptive cadence.

“We made it distant and echoey when we recorded it,” he says. “Sting wanted to do it live in this big, dark theater; this big, kind of cave. It captured, if you were left alone in this dark room, what would it sound like? What would it feel like? It’s Duke Ellington’s piano.”

“It’s not quite in tune,” adds Sting.

“Yeah, it had a little flavor,” says Ralph, with a smile.

The first time the Foley family heard it was when “Jim” was shown at Sundance and Ralph and Sting performed the song live.

Afterward, Sting says, “Jim’s father came to me and said, ‘You know, Jim’s friends at the bar they usually drink and leave an empty chair for Jim.’ ”

Ralph says, “That was kind of like, ‘OK. We’re OK.’ They gave us hugs, we gave them hugs. It’s still, for them, an everyday thing. It was a very powerful experience.”

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