'My Spike Lee Joints': 'BlacKkKlansman' Composer Terence Blanchard on Working With the Director for Nearly 30 Years

Terence Blanchard
Henry Adebonojo

Terence Blanchard

The process remains the same: 'We first get some shit out of the way,' Blanchard jokes.

Grammy-winning trumpeter/composer Terence Blanchard has worked with director Spike Lee for almost 30 years — the first film the two collaborated on was 1991’s Jungle Fever, with the first movie Blanchard scored entirely for Lee coming the next year with 1992’s Malcolm X. Blanchard’s score for Lee’s latest, BlacKkKlansman, is one of his most resonant yet, referencing the early ‘70s — the time in which the true story about the first African-American police officer to infiltrate the KKK takes place — while creating something totally vibrant and new. Billboard asked Blanchard to pick his top 5 collaborations with Lee. Instead, Blanchard wrote an essay about working with Lee, reflecting on some of his most memorable experiences. The specifics of how Blanchard approaches a film may change from project to project, but his passion and desire to serve the story remain unchanged. 

I hear Proctor & Gamble is trying to trademark the abbreviations WTF, LOL and FML for some of their household spray scents. Like Madison Avenue co-opted the Flower Power Sixties to sell Virginia Slims and other stuff that has since been tucked away among the general landfill debris; the Mad Men took what was hip and pasteurized the hell out of it, repackaging slang to make it more palatable or mainstream. You can’t co-opt hip— you either are or you’re not. 

The same goes with a Spike Lee Joint; Spike can’t co-opt hip; it has to be relevant, meaningful and truthful. His film can’t be enough just to get by or to put something in the marketplace. When he gives you a movie, it’s intentional. It will be chilling, loving and hateful by design. 

For Spike’s film Bamboozled, the Guardian’s Ashley Clarke wrote that Spike Lee is “equal parts crystal ball and cannonball: glittery and prophetic, heavy and dangerous.” The film confronts race in America, but ultimately, I think what it means to be America. Bamboozled, to me, is quintessential Spike. He’s a master at taking a serious topic and making us reflect on it while giving us a chance to laugh at its absurdity.

He wants us to ask “What is America these days?” He wants us to ask about currency. There has always been a fight about what it means to be American, the “Americanness” of true citizens. There are many shades of that, and I do mean color by the word “shades.” But I also mean shades of temperament, democracy, justice, our own right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

These questions still linger when watching Spike’s films based off of historical fiction. One of his first was Malcolm X. It was the first major film I scored in its entirety and I was terrified. Not having any experience in film I relied on the support of two men: Roger Dickerson, my composition teacher, and Miles Goodman, my mentor in the film business. Roger told me to “trust your training" while Miles told me, "your weaknesses are your strengths." 

So with that, I started to trust my feelings about the story and my reaction to hearing Malcolm’s voice for the first time. I had the recording of Denzel Washington’s performance and would listen to it every morning before I started writing. As a Martin Luther King Jr. disciple, I wondered who even was this guy and what was he saying? For many reasons I think I, and many others, was scared by his by-any-means-necessary approach to Civil Rights. That’s why my opening cue starts with a huge crash followed by the heartbeat from the orchestra. Coupled with Denzel’s delivery, it set the tone for the entire film.

Thematically, Spike Lee is all about creating art that dredges up the authentic horrors of what it means to be an American and throwing it back into the face of its very nation. You can see it with the use of blackface and minstrels in Bamboozled, Malcolm’s emotional Hajj in Malcolm X or the cross burnings in BlacKkKlansman.  But, when I think about BlacKkKlansman, understand it means more to me because it was that rare moment in an artist’s career where everything they’ve learned and worked for came together.

When I heard of Ron Stallworth’s story, I remember saying to myself this is a chance to write something for a moment in our history that was as significant as Malcolm X. So I went back to how Spike and I started. When I first worked with Spike, he told me he didn't like underscore. He wanted strong themes that could capture the pain and suffering, yet be the conscience of the story. I reflected on my own experiences of growing up in the South and the KKK and thought to myself, “How brave must you be to infiltrate an organization that hates who you are?” I’m honored I got a chance to contribute to telling Ron’s story on film. I’m also very grateful I had the privilege to tell him how he is a shining example of the very integrity and bravery that we define in Americanism.

It is often a concern that Spike only makes movies for a Black Audience. Hollywood’s marketeers certainly have tried to form their advertising and publicity campaigns in such a way. However, racism brings down the curve immensely for everyone, simply by not investing in black people. America is failing because only a select few prosper from the disenfranchisement of many. We have not learned the lessons of our history.  We can bring up the curve by picking up the fallen, those in a downward spiral. It is so obvious that if we can build up the lowest of the low, we all get raised up.

Spike’s genius is that he makes entertainment out of his polemics. He crafts a story with living characters to reinforce the humanity in the message. He tries to push his own envelope while pushing the buttons of the audience. He wants the audience to connect so he can make them ask the questions he is asking himself. And to do so, he pushes his crew not to cut corners artistically — from the director of photography to the boom mic operator to me, the guy who scribbles thousands of little notes on hundreds of pages for orchestras to play.

How I scribble might not be the same as when I began, but I still attack the job the way they did in the early days of the silent movies with only the music of orchestras in the pit to convey the story as the film flickered above. The characters need to be served. The scaffolding of the dramatic arc needs some tightening or loosening. Heartstrings need to be tugged at. Spike’s vision needs to, basically, be conveyed through my music.

Miracle at St. Anna was based on James McBride’s book, which was set primarily in Italy during German-occupied Europe in World War II. The film tells the story of four Buffalo Soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division who seek refuge in a small Tuscan village, where they form a bond with the residents. The story is presented as a flashback, as one survivor reflects upon his experiences in a frame story set in 1980s New York. The film gave me a chance to pay my respects to our heroes who gave their lives for us to be able to live free. Without them, who knows what I'd be doing now. So it was important for me to get it right, and Spike created a beautiful canvas to paint on. I remember it was going so well for him that he would send me still shots of what they were doing and I was blown away by the beauty of it all. Stills from each scene could be its own work of art. I made those photos my screen saver while working and found inspiration in learning how many Buffalo Soldiers were living amongst us everyday without ever getting a chance to recognize them and say thank you.

Some composers underline the subtext of a scene because the director is not really sure the audience will get what the filmmakers are trying to achieve: sadder, funnier, happier, sexier. Sometimes they go genre specific — “Hey, it’s a black film, lay in an R&B/hip-hop/rap/soul/what’s-the-new-stuff-kids-are-listening-to kinda track here.” The actors may be perfectly fine in the scene alone, but often there is nuance left for composers to handle offscreen.

To serve a Spike Lee Joint, I have to understand that balance between complexity and directness Spike is laying down in each scene, and how that fits into the jigsaw of the whole film. A good moment in a film cannot stand alone, it needs to make sense within the enormity of the film. It needs to support the grand message of the film without the audience’s awareness and accompanied by their raw emotional reaction. 

And then if the audience can reach that place and have a collective WTF moment together, the film has hit its mark.

When Spike and I sit down for a spotting session we first get some shit out of the way — we catch up on the family, throw shade on the other’s sports teams, etc. I’ve already read the script and taken notes, and watched some edits, but as the filmmaking process progresses, some scenes are especially challenging. Not because of what they are, but more of what Spike wants them to be.

I think that the closest we got to a Hollywoodian film was Inside Man because it was a chance for me to delve into the world of classic suspense. I had so much fun combining rhythmic grooves with the lushness of an orchestra. I sent the rhythm section into another room and told them to just jam out to some of the ideas that I had and bring that back to the main room to record while we tracked the orchestra first. Those guys were jamming so hard we kept losing orchestra members who would walk by and couldn’t pull themselves away because of what the guys were playing and how hard they were grooving. Combining those elements is still one of the highlights of my career, and was a turning point for me in my development as a film composer.

When I sit down to start a score for Spike I think I am aiming for a WTF, maybe with a little LOL to throw the audience off balance before the OMG of the scene slays them. Then I come to my senses and do the hard work of writing the music that the film needs.