Composer Terence Blanchard Riffs on Music in Spike Lee Movies, from ‘Do the Right Thing’ to His Latest Joint, ‘Da 5 Bloods’

Photo credit: Henry Adebonojo

Jazz musician and composer Terence Blanchard has created the music behind 17 of director Spike Lee’s films—but composing for film was never his original intention. “I wasn’t aware of the role of a film composer until I met Spike’s dad, [jazz musician] Bill Lee. But once I witnessed the process of creating music for movies, I was intrigued and thought to myself, maybe one day,” he told For the Record.

That day came sooner than he could have hoped. Originally a session player for some of Spike’s early works, such as 1989’s Do the Right Thing and 1990’s Mo’ Better Blues, Blanchard piqued Spike’s curiosity when the director heard Blanchard’s piano version of his original composition, “Sing Soweto,” on a break. From there, a decades-long partnership began.

Music has played a powerful part in Spike Lee’s joints since Do the Right Thing. Spike’s father, Bill, composed and performed much of the movie’s score, which was punctuated with top hip-hop tracks such as ”Fight the Power” by Public Enemy and “Don’t Shoot Me” by Take 6. Do the Right Thing, which covers racial tensions over a summer day in Brooklyn, hasn’t become any less relevant through the years, and has taken on a particular meaning and significance in recent weeks. The soundtrack, too, recently saw a surge in Spotify streams—spiking 249% on June 3 as compared to the previous week.

June 12 saw the release of Spike Lee’s newest movie, Da 5 Bloods, about four African American Vietnam War veterans who return to Vietnam many years later on unfinished business. The Da 5 Bloods Official Playlist, which began streaming on Spotify May 29, speaks volumes of the powerful Lee-Blanchard partnership. The playlist includes a message from the director himself, as well as Blanchard’s original compositions.

Da 5 Bloods was such a pleasure to be a part of,” Blanchard said. “Creating something entertaining, yet still paying homage to soldiers who have given the ultimate sacrifice, was something I can’t find words for. I wanted to create music that would bring respect to what these soldiers have given us and also hopefully show them how much we care.”

Spike Lee and Terence Blanchard at the scoring session for ‘Da 5 Bloods.’ © 2020 Netlfix Inc. All rights Reserved. Photo by Matt Sayles

In composing the music for Da 5 Bloods, Blanchard hoped to “draw in a wide array of viewers and broaden the viewing experience.” His last project with Lee, 2018’s historical dramedy BlacKkKlansman, certainly attracted a broad audience—and earned him a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Composition for the track “Blut Und Boden (Blood and Soil)”; an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score; and for the director, an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

BlacKkKlansman was a film that was so unique,” Blanchard noted. “It allowed me to explore my early roots in R&B and rock ’n’ roll. Having a 96-piece orchestra and my band, The E-Collective, featuring Charles Altura, perform the music was a pure honor and joy.”

Even though Lee and Blanchard have collaborated since the ’80s, Blanchard says they’re constantly learning by experimenting with stories and sounds.

For example, in 1992’s Malcolm X, Blanchard tried to bring his personal experience of hearing the renowned orator speak, and match it to the score so the music would cause similar reactions of shock, bewilderment, and curiosity. 2006’s Inside Man, a thriller, was the first of its kind for Blanchard, and it “allowed me to try new sonic palettes more in line with that genre of filmmaking. I tried my best to create a score that was riveting, compassionate, and yet still had the flexibility to support the story.”

Blanchard’s background in jazz is what gives him the ability to amplify the motion of a scene. “Jazz has always aspired to reach the highest level of performance and expression while having the freedom and flexibility to say what’s on your mind,” he says. “These elements have found their way in many forms of music and have been inspired by the ideology of great jazz composers and performers.”

He also extends himself to the classical and opera worlds (he’s even written two operas— his second, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, is the first composed by an African American composer to premiere at the MET). “I stand on some broad shoulders of many African American jazz musicians, composers, and performers,” Blanchard said. He is known for making powerful statements concerning American tragedies and realities—like the lack of Black musicians in classical music.

Blanchard is currently working on the score for the Perry Mason HBO series which premiered on June 21. He notes that the main difference between a series and a movie is the ability to create a world for a much longer, extended period of time. “Over that period of time, the colors and textures that are used become characters as well—like the characters on the screen.”

Ultimately, Blanchard pieces together the fabrics of history and character to create the pieces of music in all his works. “What I have tried to bring to the table is the same level of artistry and mastery that Spike brings to the screen with his cinematic vision.” Considering the pair’s track record, it’s safe to say these visionaries have—and will continue to bring—ever-important stories to the eyes, ears, and minds of eager fans.

Stream Da 5 Bloods Official Playlist below.