Terence Blanchard and Spike Lee are beginning to rival the director/composer relationship of Spielberg and John Williams. After more than 30 years together (Blanchard was a musician on the score for Do The Right Thing in 1989), Blanchard has established himself as Spike’s go-to composer for nearly every project. It’s a “cinemagical” match that continues with the grand, sweeping score of Lee’s new film on Netflix, Da 5 Bloods.
When I last spoke to Blanchard for BlacKkKlansman, he was awaiting word from the Academy to see if he would be honored with his first Oscar nomination. After a historic career, the Academy finally recognized Blanchard for Lee’s scintillating 2018 film starring John David Washington and Adam Driver.
We talk about that recognition along with the huge responsibility of scoring Spike’s epic Vietnam film for Netflix, as well as Spike’s ever-growing place in the history of cinema.
Awards Daily: When we chatted last year, you were doing press for BlacKkKlansman and garnering buzz for an Oscar nomination–your first. Now that you’ve had your name called by the Academy, how does it feel?
Terence Blanchard: That was an amazing experience. It wasn’t something I was looking for–I didn’t think it was ever going to happen. But once it did, it was beautiful to be a part of a very diverse class of nominees. I only look forward hoping that’s going to happen in the future and that trend becomes the norm.
AD: BlacKkKlansman was hardly a small film, but Da 5 Bloods is massive. Did the size and scope of the film affect your approach on this film?
TB: Oh, definitely. The whole idea was to create something grand to pay tribute to these guys who gave the ultimate sacrifice. It was a totally different experience for me working on this film. Spike is always great at putting together story lines, but he’s also amazing with the talent he hires and the performances of these actors, these veteran guys, was totally amazing to me. I watched the film again last night with some family members, and it’s stunningly gorgeous. The colors are just popping off of the screen–but it’s the performances that get you so involved in the characters’ experience.
AD: Between COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests, his film feels not only timely, but it has the cinematic landscape largely to itself right now. There just aren’t many big, important movies coming out right now.
TB: It’s an unusual situation that we’re living in, but it’s one that I feel fortunate enough to have product out for. Because you see what’s happening in our country. People out in the streets–people are frustrated, people are dying. People are sick. And if we could just take their minds away from that just for a couple of hours, I feel very honored to be the person to do that–and to do that in such a way that we’re not playing down to the audience. We’re still dealing with with issues that are current in the social justice movement that’s going on. But we’re still entertaining people.
AD: There is always so much packed into Spike’s movies. In Da 5 Bloods, you have Malcolm, you have Martin, Muhammad Ali, Black Lives Matter, and then Spike mixes in information about how a third of those who fought in Vietnam were black, despite African-Americans only making up 11% of the U.S. population. It’s jam-packed with ideas and themes. My editor wrote a review of the film where he said Spike always seems to be working on his movies all the way up to their release. (Laughs)
TB: That’s a great line.
AD: While composing the score for the film, did you do anything different to distinguish the two timelines?
TB: Not really. There were some harmonic things that I tried to do for the flashbacks. But really what I was trying to do was draw parallels. It’s been interesting because a lot of people have made comments about the movie being so current and so timely. I always push back on that. That you feel that way should show how long these issues have not been resolved, or not even dealt with. So, it may seem like the movie is timely, but what’s really going on is that the majority of the country is waking up to what’s been happening for the longest time. Spike Lee’s movies–along with a lot of other people and the things that they’ve been saying over the decades–are a part of that dialogue that’s been ignored for a long time.
AD: It isn’t so much that it’s timely, it’s timeless. I was thinking, with the success of BlacKkKlansman and the response to Da 5 Bloods, that after thirty-plus years of doing this, audiences are starting to finally catch up with Spike.
TB: It’s a beautiful thing to witness. Last year when he was nominated for an Oscar, and we had the luncheon for all of the nominees, he was the first name that they called and they let him stand up on the podium by himself for the longest time. He received a standing ovation before the next name was called. That’s an acknowledgement of his cinematic genius. And, it’s great to see that the public is starting to catch up–in some ways, it’s representative of what we’ve been talking about. You look at Colin Kaepernick and what he did in the NFL, but everybody wanted to make it about disrespecting the flag. I think similar things have happened to Spike when he spoke out. They want to label him the angry black man, and it’s like, no, listen to what he’s saying. Listen to what Colin is saying. I think people are waking up to those things and they are finally realizing that there is something behind all of these efforts to grab people’s attention.
AD: I think some of the best films about large subjects manage to tell a personal story against the backdrop of larger events. The Year of Living Dangerously comes to mind. I think Spike does that here, too.
TB: There are so many messages in this. There’s the personal level that you’re talking about. The thing that I love is the fact that all of these black men are not the same–all come from different backgrounds. I think all of the subtext is very interesting. Paul is dealing with emotional issues, but is a Trump supporter, and a person who hasn’t received any help for his issues. There’s a through line there. You see Melvin at the end jump on the grenade, when at the beginning of the film he said he would never do that–but he loved his brothers. There’s so many themes running through this film that are just amazing to witness. Kevin Wilmott and Spike, when they wrote the script, they did an amazing job of putting all of these issues into the story.
AD: There’s even a mini-Wire reunion in the film with Clarke Peters and Isiah Whitlock Jr. Isiah even gets to say his signature line from the show. (Laughs).
TB: It’s funny, man. I kept saying, I know it’s coming, where’s it going to be? (Laughs)
AD: I think my wife would leave me for Clarke Peters. She loved him on The Wire. When he came on screen in the film, she said, “There goes the smoothie.” (Laughs)
TB: He’s a sweetheart, man. We worked on a kids play together that he produced and directed for the Kennedy Center in D.C. All those guys are brilliant actors.
AD: I’d like to get back to the size of the score. It’s such a big film. I imagine you felt the score needed to match. How challenging was this project for you?
TB: We’ve used this size orchestra for a number of his films, like Inside Man. What I feel makes this one feel bigger is the story itself and the way it was shot. All of scenes of the helicopters flying through the air, all of those shots of the field–it just has an epic feel to it. The thing that I love the most is the cinematography. I haven’t heard people talk enough about that. The colors in this film are just simply amazing. Granted, I’m so happy that it’s on Netflix because people are getting access to it. There’s no excuse–Oh, I couldn’t make make it to the theater. But at the same time, I would love to see this thing projected on a huge screen with great sound, because it’s just gorgeous. My favorite shot is when Norm appears to Paul, and they have that conversation at the end. That to me is just stunningly beautiful.
AD: After I watched this film, it really hit me how unique Spike’s career has been. For someone to maintain this level of creativity while being so prolific for over thirty years is practically unheard of. On top of that, he’s still vital. He still has so much to say.
TB: This is the thing about Spike many people need to understand–he was talking to me about making this film and leaving to go shoot it while we were at the Oscars doing all of the Oscar parties and all of that stuff. He was like, man, I gotta get out of here because I’m leaving in about a week to make another movie. Normally he would take a break, but he said, no, I start shooting next week.
AD: And that’s how you found out you had another job. (Laughs).
TB: I was like okay, okay!
AD: In your score for Da 5 Bloods, I noticed the use of drums that had a militaristic vibe. I assume that was intentional.
TB: Yeah. This is the third military movie that I’ve done along with Red Tails and Miracle at St. Anna. I grew up in marching bands as a brass player. I grew up listening to that type of music. These films allow me to express myself in that in that realm–I had a lot of fun with it. Well, maybe fun is not the right word, but I was excited to be a part of the process, because sometimes when I hear those drums I get emotional. I start thinking about the fallen soldiers–the ones that didn’t come back, and the ones that came back but didn’t get a chance to get the mental health care they needed.
AD: My dad was in Vietnam, and when Paul gives that monologue and he talks about being exposed to Agent Orange? My dad went through that, too. That spoke to my dad’s personal experience even though he and Paul are very different people.
TB: Spike is always really attentive to the human element in his characters. I’ve said this about just being a jazz musician, and creating music, and I’ve always talked about it–a lot of music and film is designed to help people heal. One of the things that I’ve always loved about Spike’s films is exactly your story–exactly what you just told me. People will find something in the film and they say, I went through this, or my mother, or father, or somebody they care about went through this. That’s a testament to him not trying to just wallow in the land of fantasy. Even though these are fictional characters, he always tries to make these characters relatable to people’s lives. I think he’s done a great service for a lot of people that he will never meet.
AD: Movies can absolutely change your life. I know when I walked out of Do The Right Thing, I was never quite the same. I thought differently after that. We all have so much to learn about other people’s experiences. Spike’s films have charted an educational path for me. One that I certainly didn’t get from history books.
TB: That’s the thing about life for all of us–for everybody. My kids have been challenging me on stuff that I say–that I was totally ignorant of. You have to open your heart up and be able to listen. And that’s the beautiful thing about art. Art hopefully can help find that vibration, find that note, find that story that can touch people directly in their hearts and souls, and hopefully open them up to new ideas. I’ve always loved that about working with Spike. I tell people all the time, when they ask me about Malcolm X, and I say, the opening music to Malcolm X is based on my own experience of hearing a speech of his for the first time. It scared me to death, because I was a Christian dude and I went to church every Sunday. I believed in Martin Luther King. I was playing at a jazz camp in junior high school and we were playing in the park. In between sets, the guy who was running the bands put on a Malcolm X speech, and he started talking about blue-eyed devils and all of that, and people started cheering. But I was freaked out because I had never heard nothing like that before. That’s where you get the bass drum and the heartbeat from in the opening of the film.
AD: That movie opened a lot of eyes. Not only to what went on, but to what is still going on.
TB: Just the other night, man–I’m out with two friends of mine. We finally went out–we haven’t been doing anything lately, but this oyster bar opened up and there was outdoor seating, so we figured we could have social distancing and be safe. So, we go there just to have a couple of drinks. A guy comes up to us–he must have been in his sixties, white guy. He looked at us with a smile and said, “We should have picked our own cotton.”
TB: And we were like, excuse me? He said, “Yeah, we should have picked our own cotton.” I was like, man, I think you should move on. And he thought it was funny, but we didn’t. And that’s part of the insensitivity and unwillingness to hear what’s going on–that’s what’s causing the problems. And that’s why Spike’s films still feel timely.
AD: I’ve always felt like both Spike and his films have been misunderstood. The media has created this radical public persona for him simply because he’s outspoken. However, if you watch his films, they are very humane and…
TB: Let me stop you there. When I first heard of Spike and when I listened to the way the media portrayed him, I expected to see an all-black to crew when I went to set, and that was the furthest thing from the case. I remember we were doing Mo Better Blues–some of the film came back out of focus. The dude responsible was fired the next day. Who was in his place? This young white girl who really knew her shit. So, definitely, he’s misunderstood. People think he walks around in dashikis all day, every day. That’s not who he is, man. Last year, we were at the BAFTA Awards, and we were sitting near Rami Malek, right? When Rami won, you would have thought Spike won. He jumped up and down and was just excited and happy for him. That’s who he is–he’s a big kid. He loves making movies and he’s just very vocal about the injustices in our country, and a lot of people just easily label him as something that they can put into a corner.
AD: Spike makes some references to other movies in Da 5 Bloods. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre being explicit, but I even felt like there was a little bit of peak level Oliver Stone in this film.
TB: Well listen, they’re both guys who don’t shy away from tough topics. The thing about Spike is he’s going to do his homework whenever he’s putting together these stories. So, I can definitely see that.
AD: Did you take any inspiration from other composers on this one? I could swear I heard a little Copeland vibe here and there.
TB: Not really. When I start a project, I don’t listen to anything. I just try to come at it fresh. So, no, I didn’t draw any inspiration from anyone. I’m the type of guy that feels blessed to be a part of the filmmaking community, so I’m always inspired by great composers and what they’ve done. I’ve always felt like, I’m in a situation in the film world where I’m working with Michael Jordan, and if Michael Jordan passes you the ball, you can’t drop it. You gotta make sure you take the shot. That’s where I get inspired by Thomas Newman, John Williams, Miles Goodman, Quincy Jones, the list is endless. I feel blessed and honored to be a part of that family, and as a result, I try to work my damndest to measure up.
AD: Preparing for this interview, I thought of John Williams and his long-running relationship with Spielberg. You and Spike are the only other director/composer team that came to mind when thinking of the longevity of your partnership.
TB: It was hilarious–last year, because when we were doing the Oscar run, we had this interview with the LA Times–Barry (Alexander Brown), Spike, and myself–and the guy says, So what is it like having worked together for thirty years? We were like…shit. (Laughs). Has it been thirty years? Immediately, the first thing that came to mind was the passion these guys have for making films. That’s all they talk about. They’re not talking about marketing. They’re not talking about sales, none of that stuff. The only thing we talk about is the film, the performances, how to make the film better, where to cut, what we should focus on in the score. That’s it.
AD: I was talking to Trent Reznor earlier this year about his relationship with David Fincher, and he basically said the same thing. No one on a David Fincher set cares about anything except making the best movie possible. It sounds like that’s what you see on Spike’s sets too.
TB: Oh, definitely. When he’s on set, I don’t bother him, because I know he’s focused. When we were doing Mo Better Blues, I was working on the set with Denzel. I watched this guy shoot all day, go to a theater to watch dailies right into the night, go straight home and eat, and maybe get three or four hours of sleep, wake up and do the same shit the next day for three months. That was the first time I was on set, and I was beat, because he wanted me to watch dailes just to check the musicians, and then I was on set every day too. It was killing me. (Laughs)
AD: How long did it take you to complete this score?
TB: It’s hard to say exactly. But normally it’s like 6 to 8 weeks to write and then maybe a week of recording. That first battle scene I spent a lot of time on, just because of the nature of it.
AD: This film has more action of that kind than any other Spike Lee film. How did that impact your score?
TB: It’s something you’ve got to be cognizant of, definitely. Spike likes hearing melody. He doesn’t like hearing versions of the melody, he likes hearing melody. You have to figure out a way to satisfy that at the same time you’re satisfying the story in the film. A lot of that is through orchestration–who gets to play what, how do you pass it around, how do you spread it out, how do you treat it.
AD: The running time on Da 5 Bloods is 155 minutes. Spike uses music almost constantly in his films. Does writing music for such a lengthy film feel daunting at all?
TB: No, because again it just goes back to–what does the film need? I don’t think about it in those terms. Sometimes my manager or my agent will ask how many minutes of music did you do? I’m like I don’t know. Here, I’ll give you the notes, y’all figure it out. (Laughs).
AD: One of the things that I always notice with Spike’s films is the incredible degree of difficulty he works at. Sometimes you wonder how he can keep it all together–how does he keep the film on the rails? I’ve always felt that his best films are like miracles, in a way. There’s a certain sense of, how did he pull that off? Some of his movies, like Bamboozled, come out and they get tough reviews and maybe aren’t appreciated upon release, but then go on to get a Criterion DVD release. But with Chi-raq, BlackKklansman, and now Da 5 Bloods, these back-to-back-to-back films have been well received from the jump. It must feel great to be a part of this recent work that has been so well received by critics and audiences alike.
TB: I think it’s a combination of a couple of things. What we were talking about earlier, how the the public has been coming around to what Spike has done. I think when Spike first started making his movies they wanted him to be like every other filmmaker–not understanding that he had his own language. That’s one thing: people have come around to his languages of telling stores. But also, he’s been growing as a filmmaker. When you talk about being on the rails and walking that thin line trying to find something, that has always been his mode of operating. I think what you see in BlacKkKlansman, and what you see in Da 5 Bloods is the manifestation of all of those efforts as an artist and how those things have matured into a style.
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.