'Chi-Raq' Composer on Longtime Collaboration With Spike Lee: "It's a Mind-Meld Kind of Thing"

Terence Blanchard - H 2015
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Terence Blanchard - H 2015

Grammy-winning Jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who has scored all of Lee's movies since 1991's 'Jungle Fever,' says of working with the director, "Spike has his own sound and his own vision, and I just try to deal with his cinematic language."

This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When renowned jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard was starting out, his plan was "to be Miles Davis," he says. "I was going to have a cutting-edge jazz band, and that was all I was going to do." Fast-forward a few decades, and the multiple Grammy winner, 53, certainly has gained wide acclaim as a performer, but he's also scored more than 50 films, including all of Spike Lee's movies since 1991's Jungle Fever.

Blanchard's latest collaboration with Lee, the searing Chi-Raq, sets the classic Greek Lysistrata story in a gang-riddled Chicago, where women go on a sex strike until their men quit fighting. Blanchard, who recorded the score at Los Angeles' Sony Studios with a 70-piece orchestra, talked to THR about Lee's love of melody and the challenges of scoring a Spike Lee joint.

Your score for Chi-Raq is dramatic and commanding without being overpowering. What was your thinking going in?

I knew that Spike had a lot of songs in the film, and I didn't want the movie to go from those songs to some huge score. There are some scenes where we allowed it to be large when it was appropriate. Tackling that stuff is tough with Spike because Spike loves melody. He doesn't like underscoring. So over the years I have had to figure out a film language for him that works.

Much of the dialogue is in verse, some rhyming. How do you not compete with the dialogue?

The challenge with Spike is that he will ask for score in some scenes that are heavily laden with important dialogue. I'm like, "You sure you want that?" And he'll be like, "Yeah, yeah, right there." I've learned to kind of pick out the important words in the dialogue and make room for those.

You've scored every Spike Lee movie since 1991. What kind of shorthand have the two of you developed over time?

It's not even a shorthand, it's like a mind-meld kind of thing. There's not much discussion that has to happen. We've gotten to the point where we just have a common agenda when it comes to making his movies.

How do you work together?

We have a ritual where I send him some themes based on what it is I'm thinking and feeling based on the film. I try not to think about characters or character development because Spike will take those themes and assign them to anything. I just give him themes on the piano, and he'll come back and say, "I like this a lot. I'm not hearing this one. I think this one should be this, that should be that." We'll sit down and talk about the size of the orchestra and maybe some featured instruments, and that's it. With this particular film, I had to go back and re-score the scene where Sam [Jackson] comes up in front of the flag at the end. I think my first version was more militaristic. Spike said: "Hey man, I think I gave you the wrong direction for that last bit. I want the music to be more sweeping in the end." I think it's only the third time since we've been working together that I've had to do that with Spike. Generally, since he puts that much trust in me, I work my ass off to make sure I don't let him down.

Do you start writing themes when you get the script, or are you scoring to picture?

It depends. This one was so quick, by the time I got through reading the script and got my head wrapped around stuff, he was sending me scenes.

Did you try to incorporate any musical elements associated with the city of Chicago?

Not with Chicago, but I wanted it to be a universal thing in terms of the African-American community. That's why you hear the drums. That's why you hear doumbeks. I had congas, I had a lot of ethnic percussion going underneath some of the scenes.

Chi-Raq is based on the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata. Did that influence your score at all?

No. Spike has his own sound and his own vision, and I just try to deal with his cinematic language. A lot of electronic [instrumentation] and textures are not his thing, so we're not going to hear a lot of that in his films. He really likes the orchestral sound for his films, and he grabs other music to fulfill other things. One of the things that I love about Spike is he has a broad appreciation for music, and you hear it in his films. But when it comes to the score, he's a traditionalist.

Your scores often are the most traditional thing about his films.

I think he does that by design. One of the other things that people don't understand about my relationship with Spike is he doesn't hear the music for the scenes until we get to the studio. His thinking is he wants to hear it and feel it for the first time as the audience would. Once he assigns the [early piano] themes, then he's done until we get to the scoring stage.

You've never been nominated for an Oscar. Do you think the Academy's music branch gives you a fair shake?

I don't know. It's kind of like anything else: People go with what they're comfortable with. I don't want to sound like that dude who's so humble and so pious because you know that's not true, but the truth is I get so much enjoyment out of having the opportunity to create music. That's where the fun lies for me.

Top: Blanchard performed in July at the Love Supreme Jazz Festival in Sussex, England.Above: Teyonah Parris plays Lysistrata in the film; John Cusack's character, Father Mike Corridan, is based on a social activist and Catholic priest on Chicago's South Side.