Timing, as they say, is everything, and the timing of today’s premiere screening of “Venus and Serena” at the Toronto International Film Festival could not be better. After all, just two days ago, Serena Williams won her fourth U.S. Open, her fifteenth Grand Slam title. She, and her sister, Venus, have been perhaps the most dominant players in women’s tennis for the last decade or so, but the documentary from directors Maiken Baird and Michelle Major takes a look at two of the most trying years of the duo’s lives, 2010 and 2011, when each battled major health problems.
Accompanying the film is the music of Wyclef Jean, the Haitian-American renaissance man who first came to fame as a member of The Fugees, but has since found solo success, and even registered as a presidential candidate in Haiti (He was subsequently ruled ineligible.) As he told the Playlist hours before the film’s TIFF premiere, he and the sisters go way back.
“I have a great relationship with Venus. I did [the Sundance Channel series] ‘Iconoclasts’ with her, where I was teaching her guitar and she was teaching me how to play tennis. That’s where our relationship started, and then I wrote a song for Venus, ‘Venus (I’m Ready).’ And shortly after that I saw Serena in Miami, she walked up to me and said, ‘Where’s my song?’ ‘Don’t worry, your song is coming!’ So automatically, when it was time for the documentary, naturally they would find me, thanks to my relationship with Venus, and my understanding of the struggle and where they came from. They knew I could contribute something.”
That feeling of struggle is especially felt in the documentary’s theme song, “Heart of a Warrior.” “The whole idea with the music was triumph. Even if someone is not into sports — personally, if someone’s not into sports, I don’t think they have any DNA — when they hear this song, I wanted them to feel triumph. That’s what I get from Serena and Venus. They’re excellent at what they do, they win a lot, but the road has not been easy. If you watch the documentary, coming up how they came up with their dad, I think it’s beyond a sports story. I think when kids watch their story, from any part of the globe, and whatever they go through, whether they’re from the hood or the suburbs, this is a story where kids can get inspired to do better.”
This is not Jean’s first soundtrack work. In fact, he has twice collaborated with Jonathan Demme: “He is somebody I love. We did ‘The Manchurian Candidate,’ and we did ‘The Agronomist’ together, which was incredible.” Jean also wrote the Golden- Globe-nominated song “Million Voices” for “Hotel Rwanda,” and scored the Eddie Murphy/Martin Lawrence vehicle “Life.” “My agency is mad at me because they want me to score more films, but I want to keep producing artists,” Jean says, but adds that more soundtrack work will come.
He is, indeed, busy on several fronts, with a well-received memoir, “Purpose: An Immigrant’s Story” due for release next week. He says being honest was not hard, at least, in most cases: “All of my music is natural and its real. Whatever I was going through, you could always feel it through the emotion of the music, right up to my song ‘If I Was President.’ For me, the hardest part of the book wasn’t necessarily writing about my rock star life, or my relationships with women—that part wasn’t really hard, because you’d expect that from me, as a young rocker, travelling the world, and being a Fugee. I’d say the hardest part was to write about the relationship of me and my father. The fact that it wasn’t really accepted, what I was doing. The only concert he ever came to was my show at Carneige Hall, and then he died right after. That was the hardest part. And the beginning of the book, when I went back to Haiti after the earthquake—picking up bodies on the floor and seeing people about to die, young guys calling my name—it had taken an emotional toll for me. That really affected me when I came back.”
In addition to some upcoming producing work, he’s launching a new company called All Handz on Deck. Jean says he has “seven books that I’m writing. The next book I want to write is a political spoof called ‘They Tried to J. Edgar Hoover Me.’ It’s based on me running for president, my charity, and putting all the facts in that when you decide to do something that’s more than music, you’d better get ready to get [looked] over, because you have to be ready for the ride.” For now, his political aspirations will wait: “I decided to get back into music, because it’s my refuge, it’s the place that keeps me sane. Maybe I’ll run again in another ten years, or fifteen years.”
His music for “Venus and Serena” will debut when the film screens tonight, tomorrow, and Saturday at TIFF. Listen to an exclusive 30 second extract from “Heart Of A Warrior” below.