Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee’s latest film Da 5 Bloods follows closely on the heels of his 2018 knockout BlackkKlansman, continuing the director’s practice of raising awareness for and cultivating an understanding of the black experience in America. Released June 12 on Netflix, the war drama follows a group of four Vietnam veterans who have returned to recover the body of their fallen comrade, along with a stockpile of gold buried before their departure. As ever, scoring Lee’s film and reaffirming their now 30-year long collaboration is composer and musician Terence Blanchard.
Lee and Blanchard first worked together in 1989, when Blanchard performed trumpet for the studio recordings of Do the Right Thing. Blanchard would go on to score Jungle Fever in 1991 and the two have been inseparable since. Having been recognized with his first academy nomination for his work on BlackkKlansman in 2018, Blanchard’s score for Da 5 Bloods seems to be drawing wide attention from the film music community and mainstream critics alike, including RogerEbert.com and the Chicago-Sun Times. Da 5 Bloods is the third war film the composer has scored beside Red Tails and Miracle at St. Anna.
In addition to Blanchard’s score, the film features six songs from Marvin Gaye’s 1971 concept album What’s Going On that appeal directly to the themes of the film, taken from the viewpoint of a Vietnam veteran returning home only to be met with contempt and injustice. There are a handful of other songs used besides, Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” among them. More than just an obligatory appearance in reference to Apocalypse Now, the piece has ties with black representation on the big screen as far back as D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation, though its use in Da 5 Bloods felt like an ironic contrast by comparison as the group sets out along a river boat ride.
Blanchard kept a respectful distance between the score and the songs, crafting a militant score with exotic underpinnings that accentuate the cultural dynamics witnessed in the film. The composer has spoken at length about how he and Lee like to try different things musically with each film, and Da 5 Bloods is certainly different. There are no blues or jazz elements to speak of, at least not on the surface, and one of the principal instruments heard throughout is the Armenian duduk.
According to Blanchard, Lee focuses on two main characteristics of the score: timbre and melody. Once these have been settled Blanchard has carte blanche to compose the score as he sees fit, a process in which Lee does not even hear the evolving product until they get to the scoring stage. The composer allegedly spent five days writing the early battle sequence (“What This Mission’s About”), which he admits was his biggest challenge. The cue plays out in a flashback as the squad sets down in hot territory, introducing the theme and developing it through modulated keys, an escalated tempo, and shifting instrumentation.
An initial impression on the listener might spark memories of performing generic concert band music in high school, enjoying the dignified repartee of brass, snares, and woodwinds. However, once we hit that 1:14 mark and the action breaks out, there is nothing so elementary in Blanchard’s writing. “What This Mission’s About” is not only an achievement for how well it has been tailored to one of the definitive battle sequences of the film, but in how well it establishes the recurring musical elements of the score. The militant, concert band aesthetic ‒ or so we might consider it ‒ walks a tightrope, at once reflecting on the heroism of the Bloods’ company and their past deeds while avoiding the romanticization of America’s war on communism. It is a testament to the bravery of individuals and the responsibilities shouldered by America’s black minority, whose experience it was during the Vietnam war to fight for a country that would not fight for them, showcasing their camaraderie and stout love for one another at a time of indelible pain.
The score generally foregos the obvious pains inflicted by the present-day return to Vietnam, allowing the actors to communicate all we could ever wish to know about their later years, and the film is better for it. Oftentimes the music will elicit memories of the past instead, with the duduk acting as an emissary to events that have transpired across the silent wetlands and forests of Vietnam. This is where the duduk’s potential for tenderness and grief is at its finest, most often appearing in tandem with two character themes throughout the film; Otis’ theme (“Otis and Tien Have Dinner”) and David’s theme (“David Meets Hedy”, “Letter to David”, “Paul and David Have a Fallout”, and “David Talks About His Mother”).
Questioning whether or not using the duduk was an ethnically appropriate choice seems a moot point given how globalized our world has become, and it accomplishes its aims in any case by pitting the characters further from home. Interestingly, in the context of Blanchard’s orchestrations the duduk sounds very near to a saxophone, which itself is absent from the orchestra. In fact, it is rather remarkable how similar their timbres appear to be. The performer, Pedro Eustache ‒ a frequent collaborator with Hans Zimmer and other members of Remote Control Productions ‒ was said to have added some improvisations to the melodies he was given, and so contrary to my earlier statement, the score is imbued to some extent with jazz elements.
The last motif introduced in the score is a blanket danger motif for the encounters the Bloods face in the jungle, be it mercenaries, wildlife, or each other (“The VC are Back” and “Paul is Bitten”). The motif involves a brief series of appoggiatura on the duduk with some light inflections, accompanied by murky, sinister bass motions beneath. A definitive interval that is also featured heavily throughout the score is a falling fifth, integrated within two of the principle themes and signifying the cost suffered by the Bloods at various points throughout the film. This interval introduces “MLK Assassinated”, for example, announcing the moment that the Bloods learn of MLK’s death. Their agony is joined by powerful arpeggiations in the strings, leaning into every note with heavy motions from root position to first inversion, and growing in volume as the Bloods wail in anguish and rage.
“Finding the Gold” is another special arrival point in the score, marking the moment when the Bloods achieve one of their goals and, in essence, justifying their return to Vietnam. This scene uses its own stirring melody, borrowing from the same rhythmic components as Da 5 Bloods theme. The music mimics the rise and fall of their excitement, full of giddy jubilance, triumph, and relief as the pledge the Bloods made to one another when they were young soul brothers is fulfilled.
The emotional climax of the film is attained in “Paul and Norman” when Paul (Delroy Lindo) undergoes a deeply personal and cathartic experience. A beautiful synergy between music and cinematography introduces the scene as string harmonics slide in the upper register while the camera arcs through the bush, reorienting itself against a river backdrop within the gaze of the sun. The final flashback and conclusion of the Blood’s fabled battles is shown, and within minutes the chaos of the battle surrenders once again to the sobriety of the present. What follows is some of the most gorgeous string writing I have heard from Blanchard yet. Poignant, affectionate tension crashing through barriers of contrition and misunderstanding established over a lifetime of injustice, culminating into a release tantamount with the maw of heaven.
The epilogue by comparison introduces nothing so inspiring, and deliberately so. “Paul’s Letter” plays out as a dirge with death march snares, taken over by rusty, meandering violins and plucked bass strings in “Otis Talks Family”. This rather anticlimactic musical resolution, among other things, highlights the status quo the black community has had to live by despite their many sacrifices and hardships. We might consider it (and the score at large) an elegy for all the black lives that were not recognized in their time, for the lives lost, and for the battles still to be fought. The celebratory anthem listeners may have expected to hear for a rousing conclusion will have to wait for another day.
On the whole, the tragedy inherent in Blanchard’s music is made of equal parts nobility, loss, and kinship. At length it magnifies our senses and empathizes all too well with the transformative experience of the characters. When listening to Blanchard’s music, one can feel the burden of responsibility he places on the subject matter, and in the case of Da 5 Bloods he appears to have expanded his palette. There is no one else who could have scored this film. To say nothing of the unacceptably limited number of black composers we have in this industry, Blanchard understands what Lee is after. The score of Da 5 Bloods is an astounding musical journey, and it is time we raise up more black composers so that they might continue to communicate through music the stories that need to be told.