EXCLUSIVE: Posthumous Oscars are rare, but Chris Cornell, who died in May at age 52, stands a chance of winning one, or at least being nominated, for his moving theme song from The Promise. The film is an epic-like love story from director Terry George that is set during the Armenian genocide and the last days of the Ottoman Empire. It opened in the spring through Open Road Films but is hoping to be remembered at least in this category on behalf of Cornell. Watch a video for the song above.
Although competition for the Best Original Song in movies is fierce this year — with recent past winners providing hot new prospects in music-centric films such as Beauty and the Beast, Coco and The Greatest Showman, not to mention the efforts of eight-time nominee Diane Warren and Oscar winner Common for the stirring “Stand Up for Something” from Marshall, to mention just a few — the story behind the powerful song is compelling reason enough for its consideration.
Cornell had married into a Greek family and often heard stories about similar treatment to the Greeks during the Turkish-ruled Ottoman Empire, so he already felt a personal connection. At the time of the film’s spring release, Cornell was quoted as giving reasons for his participation. “The Promise to me is mainly about paying homage to those we lost in the Armenian genocide, but it’s also about shining a light on more recent atrocities, ” he said, adding that he was inspired by the strength and perseverance of those who were affected by these tragic events and in places such as Bosnia, Darfur, Rwanda and now, Syria. The Soundgarden and Audioslave singer previously had composed songs for such films as Casino Royale, The Avengers, 12 Years a Slave and Machine Gun Preacher, for which he was a Golden Globe nominee.
He initially got involved in the project through his close friendship with one of its producers, Eric Esrailian, who told me recently that one of the first people he spoke to in 2010 when he joined the project was Cornell. “Every time I had some kind of self-doubt about either being able to pull it off or even internally some doubts about creative issues, he was saying, ‘You can do this.’ And he started really putting his head around this from the beginning as a story, not even just the song, and he read every version of the script, ” Esrailian said. He also noted that Cornell was even thinking about it as he wrote the song “Misery Chain” for 12 Years a Slave, which dealt with a different kind of atrocity. “I think it’s a very unique situation where you have an artist who’s organically part of the project from Day 1 as opposed to what I found out happens in a lot of other films where you make the whole movie and then you show it to somebody and then they write a song. You kind of stick it on,” he said.
Even though he was a confidant through the whole process of the film’s development, Cornell did not automatically assume that he would be asked to write a song, according to Esrailian, whose day job is as a renowned gastroenterologist based at UCLA. He said Cornell’s wife told him he really wanted to be asked, so Esrailian said it was like this awkward prom proposal when he finally did ask him formally to write one.
“Then he wrote me an email the next day and it was really touching because I can imagine that he’d been thinking about it, and he wrote me and said, ‘I want to tell you that I’m honored and that I’m devoted to this film, and that I will give it my absolute best, and I feel like my 30 years of discovery and development as a songwriter have led me to this,'” Esrailian recalled. He also included this when he delivered the eulogy at Cornell’s funeral in May.
The orchestral arrangement for “The Promise” is by Paul Buckmaster, who legendarily did most of Elton John’s arrangements and who sadly just passed away last week. Esrailian notes that all the proceeds from the film (which was financed largely by the late Kirk Kerkorian) are going to various charities. Cornell donated any monies from the downloads of “The Promise” to support refugees and children through the International Rescue Committee. In Beverly Hills last night the Los Angeles Committee of Human Rights Watch had a fundraising dinner that raised more than $1.8 million and also introduced the inaugural Promise Award that recognizes an outstanding song, TV show or film that advances the values of equity and justice in an original and powerful way. It went to Cornell for “The Promise” and was accepted by his widow, Vicky Cornell, who was accompanied by his Soundgarden bandmates. Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic performed the tune to a standing ovation.