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Spike Lee On Prince, "Malcolm X," And The Music Behind His Films

The famed director peels the curtain back on his iconic films for RBMA.

Daniel Boczarski // Getty Images

Famed movie director Spike Lee, held an open forum on Monday night (May 2) at the SVA Theatre for the Red Bull Music Academy Festival, where he spoke in depth about the cultural influence that music has had on his movies throughout the years. The forum was entitled “A Conversation With Spike Lee” led by journalist and filmmaker, Nelson George. Lee discussed everything from working with the King of Pop down to why he chose certain musical selections to serve as scores for his films.

“The way I use music is to tell a story,” said Lee as he prepared to show the audience melodic clips from his films that served as a representation of his favorite musical moments. He noted that productions such as “On the Town,” “West Side Story,” and “The Wizard of Oz” were all symphonic productions that influenced his cinematic works.

Lee also revealed that music played such a vital role in all of his films because he came from a jazz household. His father, Bill Lee, was a jazz musician and wrote the musical scores for his earlier films such as ‘She’s Gotta Have It,” “Do The Right Thing,” “School Daze, and many more.

Here is an in depth look into the music and the musicians that went into creating some of Spike Lee’s most prominent films.

Prince's “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night”

“Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” was the first visual that Lee shared with the audience. Before he played the selection he explained how the late singer Prince called him unexpectedly asking that he create a short film for this track from his album Diamonds And Pearls. As Lee shared this story with the audience he quickly corrected himself as he reminisced on a conversation that he had with the late Michael Jackson stating that he wasn’t allowed to call them music videos because according to Jackson he was creating short films. Nevertheless, Lee then used Prince’s honest lyrics to “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” to create a powerful sequence of clips that represented the power of wealth from a socioeconomic standpoint.

"Good and Bad Hair" in 1988's "School Daze"

“Good and Bad Hair” was up next. This was definitely a fun clip to watch! Not only did I know all of the words and choreography but this song is from one of my favorite Spike Lee joints of all time, School Daze. Lee elaborated on his love for Hollywood musicals as well as how the song was created. While making the movie, he explained to his father that he wanted to create a song playing into the stereotypes of natural hair and colorism. After sharing his thoughts, his father wrote and produced what is now known as one of the more popular songs from the musical. In the “Good and Bad Hair” Lee portrayed the jigaboos as political, socially conscious and militant, while the wannabes were viewed as fake and trying to be “white.”

Public Enemy’s "Fight the Power" in 1989's "Do The Right Thing"

If you’ve ever seen "Do The Right Thing" you know that it has one of the most unforgettable openings of all time. From the moment it begins you hear the sweet sounds of Branford Marsalis’ saxophone as he plays “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” However those harmonious sounds are quickly erupted by Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” as we see Rosie Perez dance along ferociously. According to Lee his inspiration for Perez’s character Tina was Ann Margaret and her role in ‘Bye Bye Birdie.’

Lionel Hampton’s “Flying Home" in 1992's "Malcolm X"

In Lee’s film "Malcolm X" he did a fantastic job of recreating the Lindy Hop scene at the Roseland Ballroom. Choreographed by Otis Sallid, Lee made sure to musically anoint this scene with Lionel Hampton’s musical selection “Flying Home.” According to Lee, with a song that contained the blend of the drums, horns, and the xylophone it was hard for Denzel to keep his feet still. “Oh Denzel can dance alright, he was doing his own thing,” said Lee. He emphasized that it was really Denzel dancing and that no stunt man was used at all.

Stevie Wonder's "Living For The City" in 1991's "Jungle Fever"

Lee then went on to express how Stevie Wonder’s "Living For The City" was one of his favorite songs. Although he always knew he wanted to incorporate this song into one of films, he was waiting for the right film to do so. When he began developing the script for "Jungle Fever" and the Taj Mahal scene came about, he knew that Stevie Wonder’s hit song would fit perfectly. Lee revealed that the usage of this song was one of his favorite examples of a song used as a score rather than as a performance. After watching this scene again, Stevie’s compelling lyrics added to the depth and power of Lee’s Taj Mahal crack house spectacle without a doubt.

Sam Cooke's "Change Is Gonna Come" in 1992's "Malcolm X"

Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” is another example of a musical score that Lee was waiting to use. He decided to use the song in his film ‘Malcolm X’ moments before Malcolm X’s assassination. He explained that while making the film and speaking with Malcolm’s widow, Betty Shabazz, he learned that Malcolm knew he was going to be assassinated. Lee felt “A Change Is Gonna Come” was not only a perfect selection for that scene because of what he learned from Shabazz but also because the song had been so prominent in the Civil Rights movement. Lee made sure to express to the audience that he ended the scene and usage of the song with his famous double dolly shot of Denzel Washington, right before he entered the Audubon Ballroom.

Michael Jackson's "They Don’t Care About Us"

Lee ended his conversation with a controversial yet brilliant video that he directed for the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Just like Prince, MJ happened to unexpectedly call Lee asking him to direct a short film off of his album, HIStory. After telling the audience the heartwarming story about meeting MJ he then went on to explain how him and Jackson began prepping to shoot the short film for “They Don’t Care About Us.” Lee told the audience that it was his idea to shoot this film in Brazil being that the African drums were such a major influence on the song, musically. And the rest was ‘HIStory.’…

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