‘Da 5 Bloods’ Composer on Spike Lee’s Vision, Marvin Gaye’s Message and Hollywood’s POC Blindspot

Terence Blanchard 91st Academy Awards Nominees
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Composer Terence Blanchard has collaborated with Spike Lee for over 30 years, going back to 1991 when the director tapped him to score “Jungle Fever.” Since then, Blanchard’s credits include over 15 Lee films including “BlacKkKlansman,” “Malcolm X” and his latest, “Da 5 Bloods,” now streaming on Netflix.

The story of four Vietnam War veterans, played by Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, Clarke Peters and Delroy Lindo, who return to the to retrieve the body of their leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), the film flips between past and present as  Blanchard’s score threads the characters’ individual stories. Powerful performances coupled with Lee’s vision drive the project home.

Blanchard, who moonlights as a jazz musician when he isn’t scoring to picture, talked to Variety about his process, musical influences and the challenges he faced as a person of color coming up in the film music industry.

How has the music in Spike Lee films evolved over the years?

It’s hard to say. Part of the evolution comes from his growth as a storyteller. I remember when I got “Da 5 Bloods,” I thought, “Okay,” but when I saw it, I thought, “Oh my God.” That opening theme scared me to death and took me five days to write.

How do you crack the code for a cue like that?

I’ll give Spike a bunch of melodic ideas and he’ll tell me what he likes. The melodic part was not a problem. It was scoring the scene because there’s a lot of detail in it — it’s big and goes on for a while without much of a break. That was a task — to keep that energy going without it being monotonous. That’s why it took so long.

Did you watch any films beforehand as reference?

I didn’t. We are all influenced by things but I just wanted this to be me and the film. That’s the part I really enjoy in the process — cracking the sonic palette and then figuring out how to tell the story.

The movie switches between modern-day and flashback, how did you contrast that in your score?

It’s a harmonic thing. Spike is not a guy who is into synthetic instruments, everything in terms of tone and color we get from the orchestra and instrument clusters.

How do you reflect humor in light of the PTSD that these ex-soldiers are going through?

I don’t need to deal with period stuff much. The thing I’ve had to learn to do is go from a dramatic composer to a comedic composer. What’s interesting with Spike is he uses great actors. There’s not much for me to do in terms of enhancing because of that. My biggest fear is messing up a joke. You don’t want to be that person.

Marvin Gaye’s music is integral to the film which uses six songs from the “What’s Going On” album. Talk about the importance of having his work feature so prominently.

It’s eerily appropriate given what’s going on in our country right now. This was happening in the ’70s. Marvin, like Sam Cooke, had a reputation for being a different vocalist. That record was released when I was young, but I could feel what was going on in the country. Those records, and James Brown, made you feel like you weren’t alone.

When Spike has that music put in a film it becomes extremely powerful for so many reasons. For those who remember what it was like when those records were released, it’s a sad commentary on our country. There are a lot of people who have listened to Marvin Gaye’s music without checking out the words. They don’t understand what it’s saying and to me, that’s a perfect example of well-meaning people in this country today. They hear the melody but they don’t hear the words that the African-American community has been saying for generations. I think that’s what’s bubbling over right now — the younger people have been listening to the words.

What challenges have you faced and come up against as a composer in the field?

There are moments. Right now, it’s not much of a struggle for me, but there are some things I have had to overcome. I’m still a Black composer for a lot of people. If you go back to the early part of my career, just struggling to become a part of this community was hard. I had a lot of support, but with that, it was hard. One guy told my agent, “I love his score to ‘Malcolm X,’ but can he write to an orchestra?” I’ve had someone say, “We don’t want trumpet on the score.” Another agent was shocked at the number of people who asked him if I was Black. … In the grand scheme of things, those are minor things and it doesn’t bother me because I still get the work done. But, it lets you know there’s a mindset out there.

We’ve been seeing it a lot this week. People have been posting the most incredible statements on social media that make you question their belief system. I’ve seen it from friends. It’s amazing to think that people have a blindspot when it comes to these issues and don’t think they have a blindspot.