Songwriter and film music composer J. Ralph, who wrote music for the back-to-back Academy Award winning documentaries “Man on Wire” and “The Cove,” had marching orders that would have challenged even the most acclaimed composers for his cinematic project “Hell and Back Again.”
For the soundtrack to his two-pronged look at the war in Afghanistan, director Danfung Dennis insisted that Ralph use no external audio, sound effects or musical instruments, so as not to dilute the authenticity the filmmaker was after in portraying the war from the front lines and its impact back home on soldiers and their loved ones.
The film, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, focuses on 25-year-old Marine Sgt. Nathan Harris, who led a platoon across the Afghan desert in 2009 as U.S. troops sought to root out the Taliban. Shortly before his deployment was to end, Harris was seriously wounded in the hip during an ambush. His struggles with pain, physical therapy and the psychological toll of his injury after he was sent home are interwoven with footage from his experiences during the war before he was wounded.
Ralph, credited as composer and sound designer, worked only with the audio recorded during the filming, weaving together the sounds of trucks, helicopters, gunfire, explosions and human voices. Only at the end do other sounds figure into the film, with Ralph's song “Hell and Back” that Willie Nelson sings over the final scene and the closing credits.
Ralph said soldiers who had served in Afghanistan and who saw the film and heard the song expressed surprise that he had not been on the ground because of the feeling of first-hand experience it conveys:
Two by two in tire tracks
We’re walking along in deserted packs
Praying there’s no dirty blast today
Ralph told Pop & Hiss that he simply absorbed the images from Dennis’ gritty footage to craft the song and that he was delighted when Nelson accepted his invitation to sing it. The Hollywood Reporter praised the song as “Like ‘Taps’ in its power.” The potency of its raw emotion and empathy also rivals that of Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” from the 1994 film “Philadelphia.”
“Hell and Back Again” recently completed a one-week Academy Award-qualifying theatrical run in Los Angeles, but it is expected to have additional screenings next year. Ralph’s theme song is now available on iTunes.
In addition to his music for "Man on Wire" and "The Cove," which won best-documentary Oscars in 2009 and 2010, respectively, Ralph, who works primarily out of his own recording studio in New York City, more recently wrote and recorded songs for the autism documentary "Wretches and Jabberers," for which he enlisted Scarlett Johansson, Norah Jones, Ben Harper, Antony Hegarty, Judy Collins, Devendra Banhart and Lila Downs, among other singers.
J. Ralph and friends sing the sound of autism
Movie review: 'Hell and Back Again'
Willie Nelson in jazz country
-- Randy Lewis
Photo: Willie Nelson records the song "Hell and Back." Courtesy of J. Ralph.