Jazz composer Terence Blanchard’s work on Spike Lee's "Da 5 Bloods” is nominated for Best Original Score at the Oscars.
The film follows four Black Vietnam War veterans returning to the country to chase old ghosts and a stashed cache of gold. Otis, Melvin, Paul, Eddy and Paul's son, David, are all named after the five members of The Temptations.
Blanchard’s score accompanies the vets into the jungle with snare drums, trumpets and the dignity of a “Masterpiece Theater” special on war. The Grammy-winning composer has either played on or scored Lee’s films for decades.
Blanchard says he wanted to show gratitude and pay homage to the sacrifice Black soldiers made during the war.
“When I watched that film, the thing that kept hitting me was the whole idea of these soldiers giving the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms,” he says. “And at the same time, some of those freedoms are not afforded to them, you know, as American citizens. But they still did their jobs and didn't come back to a hero's welcome.”
Growing up in New Orleans, Blanchard’s father dreamed of becoming an operatic singer and played classical music in the house. He became infatuated with jazz music after hearing it in the streets of the city. The Black community embraces a wide range of “powerful and honest” music, he says.
The film’s actors helped Blanchard write the score. The performances told him what the film needed, he says.
A few scenes even brought him to tears: the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and when Delroy Lindo’s character, Paul, sees Stormin, played by the late Chadwick Boseman, at the end of the film.
“When [Lindo] starts to break down, man, I just lost it,” Blanchard says. “I forgot I was watching a film.”
“I kept saying to myself, writing the music for that, 'Don't blow that vibe. Don't blow the rhythm of that. Don't come in too early. Don't come in too late,’ ” he says. “ ‘Just try to be right with Delroy and he's showing you what the scene needs. Just follow his lead.' ”
On how Spike Lee’s use of Marvin Gaye’s music helped Blanchard understand the film
“I knew exactly what [Lee] was doing. I could see the table that he was setting with that music. That music is the music of not only my earlier generation, but my parents and some of my uncles who served in the military. So for me, it brought back a lot of memories of 'What's Going On,' that song itself was a very powerful one. A lot of people don't really pay attention to the words, but it's a very powerful statement.
“The words were about Vietnam. The words were about what was happening in the world, not only in our country, but in the world. And I found it interesting, you know, that it was a metaphor for what has happened in this country. While a lot of people who are not Black may have empathized with what is going on, they may not have truly gotten it because it's not something they experience.
“When you hear Marvin Gaye, it's not just the words, but it's the way he uses the words, it's the lingo. It puts you right in the moment. It's almost like it gave you a taste and a smell for what it was like being there. And I looked at it as a safety blanket for a lot of those soldiers who were over there given there sacrificing their lives for us.
On the music that plays as the audience hears the letter that Paul wrote to his son
“One of the things about that scene, just to give you a little insight, there's actually two trumpet players playing. I wanted the line to be consistent and I didn't want there to be any breaks. And it's harder to do that with one person playing. So I told both guys, I said, ‘Listen, the way this is written is to sound like one trumpet with a continuous line moving.’ And that's exactly what they did. You know, to me, it's all about Paul's demons, the things that he had been struggling with coming back from the war up until that point. We just think he's an angry, uncomfortable guy. But for him to write that letter to me was a very haunting and powerful thing.
“It resonates because here's the thing about Paul's character that I thought was interesting, you know, and Spike's portrayal of the '5 Bloods' in general. The Martin Luther King assassination scene was one of my favorite scenes. And one of the things that I found interesting in that scene a lot of people don't pick up on is that the irony of how people would view African Americans in a very narrow light and think of them as being this one type of personality, whereas when you see all of those soldiers responding to the news of the death of Martin Luther King, all of their responses are extremely different. And it speaks to the breadth of who we are as a people. I don't know if a lot of people caught that in the film.”
This segment aired on April 12, 2021.