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Spike Lee and Terence Blanchard on Thirty Years of Composing Beautiful Music

Da 5 Bloods Musical Score
Courtesy of David Lee/Netflix

Spike Lee calls his 30-year collaboration with composer Terence Blanchard “a match made in heaven.”

The two have worked together on 17 films and three television projects including their most recent collaboration, “Da 5 Bloods.” Written and directed by Lee, it stars Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Norm Lewis, Isiah Witlock Jr., Clarke Peters and Chadwick Boseman.

Hot off winning the Academy Award for adapted screenplay for “BlacKkKlansman,” Lee moved onto “Da 5 Bloods” with Blanchard on board to score.
“I feel like Spike is the type of artist who never stands still and is never satisfied with something he’s done before,” says the composer. “He’s always upping his game.”

Music has come to be another character in Lee joints, even becoming iconic in his films, such as Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” used in “Do the Right Thing.” With “Da 5 Bloods,” Blanchard’s score, featuring a 90-piece orchestra, shapes the film alongside several songs from Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”

“We have a lot of people who are not Black who try to be sympathetic to what’s happening to people of color in this country, but they don’t necessarily understand what the words are,” Blanchard says.

“Spike chose the songs. He knew that the album was going to be a central character when he sent me the script.”

With that in mind, his goal was to create something that would pay homage to the soldiers.

“There’s something very emotional to me about the soldiers that have put their lives on the line and not come back home for a hero’s welcome. So you have to come up with these harmonies that bring out the emotional element in the orchestra that will be the backdrop for some of those scenes,” he says.

The first cue, “What This Mission’s About,” took Blanchard five days to crack, which he admits is a long time for him, but it was important to get it right. “I had to because it would set the tone for the rest of the film.” He hired Pedro Eustache to play the duduk, an ancient Armenian woodwind instrument.

“There are beautiful poems on that, we would let him play and capture the performances and put him in certain spots in the film.”

Aside from the duduk and orchestration, Blanchard relied on the drum beats to give the score a military sound.

“The drums were about the collaboration. Spike likes to have the orchestra recorded. When we were recording, we saved the last day for a percussion day. When you get five guys in the middle of the room with close mics and room mics, and you let them ripple through it, it creates a sound that is so dramatic. Once we did that and got into it, Spike was like a kid in a candy store.”

Lee says: “One of my favorite parts of filmmaking is when we record the score. We recorded it in L.A., in the Barbra Streisand [Scoring Stage] on the Sony lot. Recording Terence’s score is one of my favorite parts of the whole process.

“For me, my films aren’t complete until the score is in.”

The secret to their successful collaboration is a simple one. Lee says it involves trust, coming to each project with newness and “we love what we’re doing.” Blanchard adds that over the years, the two have grown in each discipline and through it all Lee has never been overbearing.

“I know what he likes and what he wants. He gives me the room to do that.”

Very rarely does Lee give him notes to go back and do a rewrite. When writing a cue for 2008’s “Miracle at St. Anna,” Blanchard had missed a mark. “It was the beginning of that. I wanted to score that like a battle, and he wanted it to be more operatic and alive. That’s why I wanted to take time to get the opening part of ‘Da 5 Bloods’ together because I know that’s really where his head is at and how he writes those stories.”