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Spike Lee’s Secret Weapon For 30 Years: ‘BlacKkKlansman’ Composer Terence Blanchard

Spike Lee and Terence Blanchard share the story of how they met and explain their unique collaborative process

For the latest Spike Lee joint, “BlacKkKlansman,” Blanchard and his band composed the catchy electric guitar lick that imbues 1970s drama with countercultural attitude. The story of black police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan by using a “white voice” on the phone, expands into a complex meditation on America’s torturous racial divide through the ages, and Blanchard’s music imbues many scenes with an immediacy that sets the stage for the contemporary finale.

With “BlacKkKlansman” currently on the awards circuit and nominated for several Golden Globes (including best drama), Lee and Blanchard found a small window of time to appear together for a Q&A in New York. Less than 12 hours before Blanchard had to return to New Orleans for a gig with The E-Collective, the pair spoke after a screening of the movie at Florence Gould Hall, where several composers were in attendance. The following excerpts of the conversation have been condensed and edited.

Spike, music is always so central to your films. Where does that come from?

SPIKE LEE: I was very fortunate to grow up in a household where my musician father, Bill Lee, did all the scores for my student films. Then he did “She’s Gotta Have It,” “School Daze,” “Do the Right Thing,” and “Mo Better Blues.” He was a purist. To this day, he has never played an electric bass. During the folk era, my father was the top folk bassist in the world. He played with Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Peter, Paul and Mary. When Bob Dylan went electric, everybody went electric. My father said he couldn’t do it. He went from being the top bassist to needing a job, so my mother had to work. I look at it two ways. He’s a purist. But he had five kids. If you saw “Crooklyn,” that’s my family. So I really appreciated musicians.

Where did the electric guitar riff of the main theme come from?

TERENCE BLANCHARD: When I started thinking about the seventies, looking at the film and seeing those afros, the leather pants, the leather jackets, one of the things I started thinking about was Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, playing the National Anthem. I kept thinking that was one of the most patriotic things I’d ever heard. It seemed like me that he was screaming that we were all Americans.

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