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Oscars Support the Press During ‘The Empty Chair’ Performance

Variety logo Variety 2/27/2017 Dani Levy
© Provided by Variety

Both in tribute to the lost journalist and in demonstration of the power of music, Sting took to the Oscar stage to perform the best song nominee “The Empty Chair” from “Jim: The James Foley Story.”

At the end of his touching solo performance, a shot of Foley was projected on the stage with his quote, “If I don’t have the moral courage to challenge authority … we don’t have journalism.”

The quote was especially timely given that President Trump just banned several news outlets, including CNN and the New York Times, from White House briefings.

The film tells the story of journalist and war correspondent James “Jim” Foley, who was captured first by pro-Gaddafi forces in Libya before ISIS kidnapped him in 2012. The first imprisonment lasted 44 days, while the latter ended tragically after two years in captivity.

Foley was beheaded by ISIS militants in August 2014, who also released a video showing the crime and a message to then-President Barack Obama.

For the song, composer J. Ralph approached Sting to write, thinking his sensitivity and calming voice would be a perfect companion to the theme he had composed. Together, they performed the song for Foley’s family, friends, and fellow prisoners (all of whom were interviewed for the film) at Sundance. Sting re-recorded the song in a different key for his latest album, “57th & 9th.”

Ralph, a celebrated documentary composer, has been nominated in the best song category three times now; he was previously nominated for 2012’s “Chasing Ice” and 2015’s “Racing Extinction.”

“I’ve focused a lot on social documentaries, things about the war or the environment or species extinction or medical issues,” composer J. Ralph previously told Variety. “One of the ways to help people relate to these issues is with a song. A song can help create a bigger connection in a way that facts and figures and talking heads can’t do.”

“It’s probably harder to write a song for a documentary than a blockbuster,” Sting added. “The parameters are much more defined. If you’re writing a song for [a fiction feature], they want a top-40 hit, you don’t necessarily have to do much with the plot, it’s just a vibe. Writing for a documentary demands a lot more thought and effort.”

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