Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, the directors of “Rising Phoenix,” a documentary airing on Netflix starting Wednesday, knew they wanted a song to conclude their film about the history of the Paralympics, the international competition for athletes with disabilities.
But, having demanded from composer Daniel Pemberton a “no excuse, no surrender soundtrack, something that would punch people in the face,” as Bonhôte put it, they expected nothing less for their end-title song.
And while there was initially talk of seeking a well-known artist to perform it, “we were very reluctant to have a big name,” says Ettedgui, “because we’ve got a film full of athletes who should be household names, and yet none of these people are famous. It felt wrong to have a big-name singer finish the film off.”
With the help of music supervisor Gary Welch, Pemberton discovered three American rappers, part of Krip-Hop Nation, “a loose-knit scene of disabled hip-hop artists,” Pemberton tells Variety, “quite a fascinating world, very overlooked and underground.
“I always wanted to do a hip-hop track because it lent itself to that kind of energy, poetry, aggression and power that felt like a natural fit. So we found three artists, from different areas, different backgrounds — a diverse range of talents, voices, attitudes and performances that could work together on the song.”
Starting on the score late last year (while he was still finishing “Motherless Brooklyn” and starting “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey”) Pemberton eventually found a riff he liked, one that became the raw, driving backbeat of the film, music that he says “captured the relentless determination of all these athletes.”
That beat turned out to be the basis for the song, performed by rappers George Doman, who bills himself as George TraGiC, from Modesto, Calif.; Toni Hickman of Houston; and Keith Jones of Boston.
All three were sent private links to view the film. They recorded their impressions and sent them off to Pemberton in London. “It was so much more powerful than I could have dreamed of,” the composer says. “What they were writing about was so personal, so real, and it’s rare to hear a song that feels so authentic.”
The song was conceived, recorded and finalized, entirely via the internet, over four or five days, Pemberton reports. “I’d choose bits of the performances, cut them up, send them back to them and say, could we re-tweak it?”
The American rappers found similarities to their own lives in the film’s athlete profiles, and wrote lyrics that both reflect the film and their own experience. “This was like my life,” says Doman, who has cerebral palsy. “Their stories are my story. We all get judged and discriminated against.”
Adds Hickman, whose right side is now partially paralyzed after two brain aneurysms and a stroke: “I feel what everybody else is going through in that film. I’ve witnessed discrimination not just as a Black female but as a disabled person. People think you’re ‘less than’ because you’ve been through what you’ve been through. We assume because a person has a disability, they are not capable. That sucks.”
Jones, who also has cerebral palsy, notes that the sentiment associated with what he calls “disability movies” is “usually sticky sweet. This is so not that. This is actually how we are. Our humanity is not defined by lack of limbs or different cognitive abilities. We have to look beyond their disability or limitation, and just bask in the glow of how great humans can be regardless of the circumstances they’re facing.”
Asked about his hopes for people hearing the song, Doman said: “Stop and realize, we’re human too. Stop putting us in a box.”
As for the score, most of it was created, post-pandemic shutdown, in Pemberton’s studio, augmented by three musicians with disabilities, all performing in their home studios and sending in their parts for mixing into the final score: viola and violin player Gemma Lunt, French hornist Guy Llewellyn, and New Zealand-born soprano Joanne Roughton-Arnold. “I played a lot on this score, but every other note is performed by a musician with a disability,” Pemberton says.