NEW YORK — “I use music to tell a story,” Spike Lee, the Brooklyn-bred director, said in an introductory statement preceding his conversation with journalist Nelson George at the SVA Theatre in Manhattan.
The event — the third of this year’s Red Bull Music Academy Festival New York — brought hundreds of fans to hear him speak about his most iconic music moments on film.
Music, according to Lee, is just one of many narrative tools a director relies on, but “it’s probably the least understood.”
Alongside the movies he is best known for, Lee has also worked in a variety of visual formats, including documentaries, short films and commercials. Throughout, music has remained a constant thanks in no small part to his upbringing and his father, Bill Lee, a jazz bassist and composer who scored Lee’s graduate school works at New York University and early movies, including "Do The Right Thing" and "School Daze."
On the occasion of this public conversation, Lee selected 13 clips from across his career to show a range of how music and moving images can be woven together, be it through traditional scoring, source as score, live performances or opening credits. Here are five notable insights the director shared.
1. Prince and Spike Lee
The first clip of the evening was Lee’s short film for Prince’s "Money Don’t Matter 2 Night," which was followed five years later by a Prince score for the movie "Girl 6."
Recalling his first interaction with Prince, Lee explained their working relationship was very hands off. He got “an unexpected call from Prince and he said ‘I want you to do this music video for the song "Money Don’t Matter Tonight," but I’m not gonna be in it.’ It was disappointing but still it’s a Prince video.” For "Girl 6," Lee approached Prince with the script and asked to use his music: “He wrote the title track and then told me to go through his catalog and use whatever song I wanted.”
2. "Do The Right Thing"
The opening credit sequence for Lee’s 1989 "Do The Right Thing" has roots in the director’s earliest memories of music and movies working together, when his mother would take him to the movies. “The opening sequence for 'Do The Right Thing' came directly from Ann-Margret in 'Bye Bye Birdie'” the director explained, referring to the 1963 musical comedy which opens with actress Kim McAfee singing and dancing to the camera.
During filming, Lee approached Chuck D of Public Enemy for a song that could be used every time the character Radio Raheem appeared on screen. “The first song wasn’t it,” Lee explained. However, after showing Chuck a rough cut of the film the rapper returned with Public Enemy’s "Fight The Power," an iconic song to complete an iconic scene.
Lee also told the audience how he came to cast actress Rosie Perez as Tina. While in Los Angeles at the Funky Reggae club for his birthday, Lee saw a woman “dancing crazy on top of the speaker” to EU’s "Da Butt." “Told her to come off the speaker and she cursed me out in that voice, and I’d never heard that voice before,” Lee said. The woman, a young Perez, turned out to be from Fort Greene, in Brooklyn, near the Bed-Stuy setting of "Do The Right Thing," which Lee was writing at the time. “That’s when I began thinking maybe Mookie’s girl should be Puerto Rican.”
3. "Jungle Fever," "Malcolm X" and songs as score
Lee offered two prime examples of the use of pre-recorded songs as score. The first was Stevie Wonder’s "Living For The City" — “one of the greatest songs of all time” — which Lee used in "Jungle Fever" to score the scene where Wesley Snipes searches for his crack-addicted brother. “I made a mental checklist that one day I would put that song in a film, but it had to be the right one and 'Jungle Fever' was it,” Lee continued.
Also appealing was the song’s narrative and interspersed dialogues of a man coming to the big city from Mississippi and ending up in jail. “It’s just insane that Stevie came with that style, I just felt that song worked.”
The second example was "A Change Is Gonna Come" by Sam Cooke, as used in "Malcolm X," where it soundtracks the activist’s final journey before his death. During research, Malcolm’s late widow, Betty Shabazz, had told Lee “she felt her husband knew he was gonna be assassinated.” Based on this, Lee decided to set up the end of the scene using his signature double dolly shot. “That’s the best use of it I think,” he admitted. “By showing him floating we wanted to convey his mindset going into Audubon Ballroom.”
4. "Mo’ Better Blues"
Discussing his 1990 drama about jazz, "Mo’ Better Blues," a film inspired by Lee "growing up in jazz household,” the director touched on his collaborations with jazz musicians and composers Branford Marsalis and Terence Blanchard. Because the two were already playing on his father’s scores, it made sense for Lee to bring them on as composers for this score. Blanchard in particular would continue to work with Lee throughout the 2000s.
The scene Lee showed featured the song "Harlem Blues," the lyrics for which came from jazz legend James ‘Eubie’ Blake. “He was in his '90s, we went to his house and begged him to use the lyrics,” Lee recalled, “and he blessed us.” In the movie, Blanchard played the trumpet parts for Denzel Washington’s character Bleek while Marsalis dubbed Wesley Snipes’ Shadow. The "Harlem Blues" scene ends with Bleek failing to play. “It was hard to do,” Lee admitted, “but it was a sad and powerful scene. That was the interest for me, what will a musician do when he can’t play anymore?”
5. Michael Jackson, "They Don’t Care About Us," and "City of God"
The conversation ended with the short film Lee shot for Michael Jackson’s "They Don’t Care About Us." While the two had never met in person, Jackson reached out to Lee for the project and visited him in his Fort Greene home. Taking inspiration from a recent album by Paul Simon featuring Brazilian musicians, Lee suggested the video be shot in Brazil.
Having opted to film in a notorious favela in Rio de Janeiro, Lee needed to ensure Jackson’s safety. His assistant producer Kátia Lund met with the head of the favela who turned out to be a Jackson fan. In turn, Lund and the local struck up a relationship that led to the 2002 movie "City of God."
As for the video, which features dozens of drummers playing alongside Jackson, it was Lee who convinced the singer to lay the drums over the track’s synthetic rhythm. “There comes a point when the song is over and the guys keep going and I thought he was gonna cut but he just kept the s--t goin’,” Lee recalled. “This is one of the most important things I did in my film career, working with Michael and on a whim ending up in Brazil doing this.”