And if Autism Were a Song, It Might Sound Like This

Courtesy of Douglas Biklen

In Wretches & Jabberers, we see Chammi, a Sri Lankan man with autism, typing that it is “killingly hard to figure out” why he sometimes can’t control his body. A few scenes later, the singer Antony, of Antony and the Johnsons, sings a lament about how it is “killingly hard to say how I feel/It’s killingly hard to move towards the real.” The song could be about anyone struggling to be understood. But because we’ve seen the source of the lyrics, it has a specific, as well as generalized meaning—fitting for a film that is all about language and communication.

The music for Wretches & Jabberers was written by composer and musician J. Ralph, who scored the Academy Award–winning documentaries The Cove and Man on Wire. After watching the film, Ralph asked his musician friends to collaborate on the soundtrack. The catch was they couldn’t hear the songs first. Ralph wanted to capture the musicians discovering the music in the same way the subjects of the film discover language as they learn to type and communicate. Several of the songs borrow the phrases of the film’s subjects for their lyrics.

“With this project, words were crucial because these people never had their own words,” Ralph says. In addition to Antony, musicians including Norah Jones, Carly Simon, Bob Weir, and Ben Harper contributed to the project. “Almost everybody involved knew somebody with autism,” says Ralph. “I have friends that are on the spectrum, but for me this film is about basic human rights.” Including the right to be heard, even when the process is killingly hard.

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