'Da 5 Bloods' Composer Calls Scoring War Movies a 'Sonic Battle' Between Guns and Music

TheWrap awards magazine: Terence Blanchard breaks down the crucial scene between Chadwick Boseman and Delroy Lindo

A version of this story about Terence Blanchard and “Da 5 Bloods” first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Quincy Jones may be the Black composer with the most Oscar music nominations — six in total, three for songs and three for the scores to “In Cold Blood” in 1967, “The Wiz” in 1979 (Best Original Adaptation Score) and “The Color Purple” in 1985 (which he shared with 11 other composers). But with his nomination this year for “Da 5 Bloods” to go with his nom two years ago for “BlacKkKlansman,” Terence Blanchard becomes the first Black composer with two solo Best Original Score nominations, and only the 10th ever nominated in the category, in a lineage that goes back to Duke Ellington.

“It’s extremely significant, because we’re trying to move the country forward,” he said. “What makes it significant has nothing to do with me — it has everything to do with what other people see, what other musicians see in terms of somebody that possibly looks like them having that type of recognition. Before I got my first nomination, it was never on my mind. And now I’ve talked to younger musicians, and they see the possibilities. Their experience with the Oscars is forever going to be totally different than mine.”

Blanchard, who got his start as a jazz trumpet player, only began scoring films after playing on some of Spike Lee’s early films; “Da 5 Bloods” is his 15th collaboration with the director, and the second war movie, after 2008’s “Miracle at St. Anna.”

“The difference in approach in a war movie is huge,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Who’s going to win the sonic battle here, the guns or the music?’” But he also had to focus on writing heroic music, to pay tribute to the soldiers who fought in Vietnam. “I’m humbled by what they did,” he said. “I remember being at a premiere and one of the Tuskeegee Airmen was there talking about one of his dogfights. And there was something about being next to somebody who actually went through that that was humbling to the degree where I’m sitting there thinking to myself, ‘Man, I just play the trumpet, dude. I’m not out there keeping the country safe.’”

Blanchard also had to structure the music to contrast with the songs from Marvin Gaye’s classic “What’s Going On” album, which Lee used throughout the film. “You want to set a pace and a tone for the film,” he said. “If a scene has a certain type of song coming up and I have the cue in front of it or behind it, I’m not going to do anything that’s going to have similar energy. In order for the song to have more impact, I need to go counter to what the song is going to be prior to it or after it.”

The hardest scene to score, he said, was the lengthy battle sequence that is the first scene in the movie to use his score: “The main challenge is that it’s a Spike Lee film, so he doesn’t want underscore. He wants heroic music, and the only way to keep it going without losing interest or energy is to have the music revolve and evolve.”

But quieter moments posed challenges as well, including the heart-wrenching scene in which Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman) returns from the dead to quietly forgive angry, embittered soldier Paul (Delroy Lindo) for an incident during the war.

“Man, that’s definitely one of those scenes where I said, ‘Don’t f— it up,’” he said, laughing. “I constantly said that to myself because you have to pick the moment when the orchestration can explode, and that’s a tough thing. Does it explode when they hug? And I decided, no, it was when we finally see the strong personality of Paul break down.”

Read more from the Down to the Wire issue here.

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