Terence Blanchard: ‘Da 5 Bloods’

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Composer, Terence Blanchard. Photo by Matt Sayles, courtesy of Netflix.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes composer Terence Blanchard, who’s nominated for an Academy Award for the score for Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods.” Blanchard has worked with Lee for more than 30 years on films including “Jungle Fever,” “Malcolm X” and “BlacKkKlansman.” Blanchard tells The Treatment that some of the emotion in his scores comes from pent up frustration and rage at the lack of progress on social justice in the United States. He says working with Lee allows him to compose music that can stand on its own and not just as a score, and he says he appreciates Lee’s willingness to give credit to all the musicians who work on his films.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest, Terence Blanchard, since we last spoke, has composed over 40 scores, basically every Spike Lee movie since 1990. He has a second Oscar nomination for the score of "Da 5 Bloods." There's something about the spiritual in all of these scores you've done for Spike. At some point, there's a melancholy that feels almost biblical to me because of what these characters are going through. 

Terence Blanchard: Well, it is part of the journey from when I was a kid, growing up in the church, and understanding what it meant to be an African American. And then to think that here you have these guys, giving the ultimate sacrifice for us for our freedoms, not just for us, but for everybody's freedoms, and to come home and not be celebrated, for me, was a tragedy, or is a tragedy. What I tried to do with the music in the film is not only show the heroism, but at moments in time, pay homage to the sacrifice that they gave for us and just say, thank you.  

KCRW: This happens so often in the work you've done with Spike, that intersection between the spiritual and the melancholy. 

Blanchard: That's the thing about so many of Spike's films. His films have been dealing with the human condition and everything that we've been struggling through in this country, and that's the common denominator between all of those things that you're hearing in the music. One of the things that I constantly feel that Spike is saying, and I could be wrong, because we've never really had a conversation about it, but I just feel like, he's just screaming, we just want a fair shot. We're not asking for extra treatment, or anything like that; we just want to be treated just like anybody else. And for me, that has been the rallying cry that you hear in a lot of churches around this country, a lot of Black churches, especially around this country. And growing up in that tradition, that element is constantly with me no matter what it is that I do. 

KCRW: Thinking about "Da 5 Bloods," and when Delroy's character refuses to admit that he's got PTSD, and I think so much stuff you've done both with Spike and on your own are in effect about the kind of the de facto PTSD that a lot of African Americans are suffering in this country.

Blanchard: Wasn't there a study done that they can track the tragedy of all of this stuff through our DNA? The elements of it that are just basically in our makeup, the suffering, the pain. That's a very profound thing to think about. I think the thing that's frustrating for me is the fact that on the one hand, we make so many strides in the technological realm. We make so many strides in other areas. And this area is one that's hard for us to overcome. When people went to see "BlacKkKlansman," and they saw the film, most people looked at it as a period piece until they saw the montage at the end of the film.

KCRW: Your scores often feel like suites to me, that moment of exaltation. If you've ever gotten to see Terence Blanchard play live, my God, you get that so often. But I feel like almost in some ways, that's the sweet release for you, isn't it?

Blanchard: I don't know if it's a release or if it's rage sometimes. You know what I mean? Sometimes, I think about what Baldwin said: to be Black in America means to be in a constant state of rage. And sometimes I feel that, because you just want to say: can't you hear me? Can't you see what's going on? And, frankly, I'm getting to the point where you get tired of having these discussions.

Look at what just happened in Colorado. Why are we still having discussions about gun control? Aren't we tired of these things happening? It just baffles the mind to think that there could be solutions to some of these things. I'm not naive enough to think that we will totally rid ourselves of catastrophes or tragedies happening, but I do think we can minimize a great deal if we just were a little bit more proactive in how we approach these things. And to think that the country has become so polarized politically, it's hard to move in either direction to get anything done these days. And that, to me, is a sad, sad commentary on our country, because this was supposed to be the experiment where there was supposed to be a free flowing exchange of ideas to create a better union. And that doesn't seem to necessarily always be the case. 

KCRW: I mean what’s the difference between Eric Garner and... "Breathless" is about that, and saying, I can't breathe, and didn't we just hear that again last year?

Blanchard: Think about the guys that were in that military struggle based off of "Da 5 Bloods." Think about what they were going through. One of the scenes that really broke my heart in the film is the MLK assassination. I wasn't there, but I could just imagine that in the middle of that struggle, you're over there fighting a fight, knowing that Martin Luther King is fighting for you back at home. And you're doing your damnedest to be a professional soldier and show that African Americans are capable of doing everything everybody else can do. And then all of a sudden, this guy is taken off the planet and murdered. That had to be a serious jolt to the system because while you're fighting another foe, that foe never called you the n-word. That foe never prevented you from having housing or getting a job. And while you're fighting that foe at the behest of the country, the country itself has created a climate where Martin could be shot and killed. That has to be a jolt to the system. 

KCRW: I said this to you: a lot of your scores feel like suites to me. At some point in most of them, we do get that moment where, literally, spiritually, your horn bell, things are tilted up, and that can be an exclamation of rage or a purging of frustration, or a cry to the heavens.

Blanchard: I remember Wayne Shorter said something to me, just about life, being a musician. He said, your life is one big composition. When he said that, it hit me like a ton of bricks, because I got it right away. We tend to think of putting everything into one piece of music, wanting to make the definitive statement in one piece of music. And it's like, No, man, it's a journey. It's a path. It's a documentation of growth, spiritual growth, musical growth, mental growth, and health. And each film is like a small chapter within that larger story. But within those chapters, there's subplots. 

The thing that's always interesting about Spike's stories in his films: he wants the music to be almost operatic.  I remember when we did "Miracle at St. Anna," and I scored the first battle scene like a battle scene. I had a lot of percussion going on. And Spike was like, No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, I don't want to underscore. I just want a strong melody. I want to show these guys as heroes. And I went, Okay, so from that moment on, I really got where he was coming from, with his style of filmmaking. To me, it made so much sense. 

KCRW: Basically, Spike wants your pieces to be as demanding as the films are, because in visual terms, there are a lot of declaratory things. We know at some point, we're going to see, in effect, flashcards. We'll see at some point a still that's like an exclamation point before the sentence. It's almost Spanish; the exclamation point starts a sentence rather than finishes it. And then you've got to come in and step up and be ready for that in a way that, again, doesn't overwhelm the visual content, which to me, sounds like an incredibly hard thing to do.

Blanchard: It was at first. I guess I'm just accustomed to it now. We've been doing it for 30 films. And it's been a great experience; he's definitely made me grow. That's for sure. "Da 5 Bloods" was daunting in that it's amazingly shot; it's beautiful, and it's gorgeous, and all of the actors did an amazing job. My main job in that film was to be right with the actors; their performances were so incredible. I didn't have to push. I didn't have to hold back in some spots. I just had to be right there with him. And that was a beautiful experience to have as a composer, because sometimes when you're working on a scene, you go, Okay, well, there's not much there in that scene, so maybe I need to over-embellish to get the point across. But with "Da 5 Bloods," man, there was none of that. 

One of the things about Spike that he told me, very early on, when I first started working with him, he said, Listen, I want your music to be able to stand on its own away from the film. That was a powerful direction. Sometimes you hear underscore, and it works amazingly well with the film, because that's what it was designed to do. But if you take it away from the picture, it can just be ambient stuff that may not make a lot of sense to the casual listener.  With Spike, his whole idea is that he wants you to walk away from the film whistling the themes. And then when you hear the music, he wants those themes to recall scenes from the film. Spike is one of, if not the only director that I've ever worked with--and go check me when I say this--that when we do a score for him, he'll list all of the musicians who played in the orchestra in the credits. It's not often that you see that.

KCRW: No, that's very unusual. That's somebody who's not afraid to enlist collaborators. There is an operatic clarity to your work with Spike that complements the really potent clarity of the images. As often as not in Spike's work, there's no ambiguity. There are two sides. But there's no ambiguity in the impact of these images, and the impact of your work in terms of adding music has to equal what's going on in the direction. 

Blanchard: One of the things that I've always loved about working with Spike is that he's never shied away from tough subjects, never. And he never will. He's willing to put it out there to have people talking about it, both sides of it. And it's forced me to confirm it musically because that's my job. And I think the other thing that's also never really spoken about is: Spike is an artist in terms of how he frames the scenes. If you're watching one of his films, just stop it at any moment and look at what's on the screen, and you'll probably see a perfectly composed picture. It's well thought out from every aspect, and he doesn't get enough credit for that because the subject matter that he deals with is so powerful. But the dude is a craftsman. This guy is always thinking about these images. When it comes to me, and I have to score this, I'm following him. And then sometimes it's just magic and the divine. 

KCRW: I'm wondering when you felt you turned the corner [with Spike Lee] because basically what Spike wants us to do as viewers is to grab our attention.

Blanchard: Well, I think I turned a few corners with Spike. The first major corner was when I did "Malcolm X" because I was scared to death. I did a ton of studying, man. I listened to some scores. And I pulled out some scores to some Stravinsky and just a couple other composers and just did my homework, and then it just kind of progressed from there. 

I feel like when we got to "Miracle at St. Anna,"  I can't explain to you how that score damn near wrote itself. It was a huge score. Huge orchestra. I think it was well over 60 minutes of music in it, but every day I got up to write, it was just flowing. I can't explain it. It was freaking me out. I got a little nervous about because I kept saying to myself, man, this is coming too easy, but at the same time, I had read this book called "Flow" and it talks about how a lot of times we think in order to be creative, we have to struggle, and that's totally the opposite. He said when you're in the flow it feels effortless and that's what I felt when I was writing "Miracle at St. Anna."




Rebecca Mooney