After collaborating on nearly 20 movies for more than 30 decades, it’s easy to see why composer Terence Blanchard calls his creative rapport with Spike Lee “more like a no-hand” than a short-hand. That could explain why, on the morning of March 15, the jazz musician and the iconic filmmaker didn’t have to say much at all about the fact that their latest effort, “Da 5 Bloods,” received just a single Academy Award nomination: Blanchard for Best Original Score.
“[Spike] called me up to congratulate me and I said, ‘Well, man, I’m feeling bad because I thought for sure you guys would get nominated,'” Blanchard told IndieWire, calling from his home in New Orleans. “His response to me was, ‘Onward and upward. You’ve got to represent.’ And he said ‘congratulations,’ and that was it.”
Many pundits and other Oscar watchers thought “Da 5 Bloods,” a nostalgic odyssey of four veterans returning to the teeming Vietnam jungle that earned a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for Best Ensemble, would nab at least a few more nominations on Oscar morning. For one, there were hopes for actor Delroy Lindo as Paul, a PTSD-addled, volatile, Trump-supporting veteran in a MAGA hat. “His performance was amazing,” Blanchard said, adding that Paul’s abrasiveness is exactly what should’ve landed him a nod.
“To me, that’s why you should nominate him, because he pissed people off,” he said. “You bought into the fact that this guy was a MAGA-hat-wearing person, and to me, that sells the character. “
New York Film Critics Circle Award winner Chadwick Boseman was also in the mix for Best Supporting Actor, as a fallen soldier who haunts his squadron 50 years later. But the late actor’s sole nomination was for Best Actor for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
Courtesy of Netflix
“I was very surprised because I thought I was the one who would be the odd man out actually,” Blanchard said of his place in the race as composer of “Da 5 Bloods.” “Everyone was talking about Delroy Lindo, and I thought for sure Spike was going to get nominated as well, and Chadwick of course. But when it didn’t happen? It’s a tough process, man.”
Blanchard attributed the no-shows for “Da 5 Bloods” to the makeup of the Academy which, he acknowledged, is changing for the better, especially as diversity becomes of paramount concern to the organization. (On the flip-side, the Golden Globe Awards totally shut out “Da 5 Bloods,” one of several outcomes to raise concerns about the constitution of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s voting body.)
“People have been working toward making [the Oscars] better; that’s why they came up with the shortlist, which really helped a great deal,” said Blanchard, whose stirring, swirling work on “Da 5 Bloods,” featuring a 96-piece orchestra, first landed in Oscar contention in February on a list of 15 out of 136 eligible scores.
“We need to just keep moving forward in trying to figure this out, because I think what hurt ‘Da 5 Bloods’ in terms of nominations was the fact that it was released so early in the year, and there were a lot of movies that came out afterwards that hit on the front of people’s minds,” he said. Indeed, “Da 5 Bloods” fell early in the race — back on June 12, 2020 — though dropping straight on Netflix allowed more people to see it.
The “thing for me that made me really proud of ‘Da 5 Bloods’ was not only it is a great movie, but in the middle of a pandemic, what it meant to a lot of people,” Blanchard said. “We were all trying to get accustomed to staying at home, being at home 24 hours a day, and I remember a lot of people were looking forward to the release of ‘Da 5 Bloods’ on Netflix at home. There were a lot of families that had great family time watching the movie and I feel proud about being a part of that.”
Blanchard’s score for “Da 5 Bloods” balances the big swell of a 96-piece orchestra with more restrained, noirish themes that thrum in the background of huge emotional character arcs. The film’s opening flashback to a hellish helicopter fight in the Vietnam jungle, Blanchard explained, demanded a bigger canvas. “There are areas like that where we needed a huge orchestra,” he said. “But for the most part, it’s a story about these five guys, and it’s a very heartfelt thing. The score is following that through line, so there’s a balance between having an orchestra really roar in certain spots, and then come back and just be very subtle, and just lay in the background.”
Blanchard has remained prolific during the pandemic, even in New Orleans. “If you got locked down here, you probably would’ve lost your mind,” he said. He had three other projects debut in the past year, including HBO’s noir series “Perry Mason,” Regina King’s film “One Night in Miami,” and most recently, the Aretha Franklin installment of NatGeo’s “Genius” anthology series, which brings his jazzy sensibilities as the head of his quintet The E-Collective to highbrow, period storytelling.
“I’ve had to scale back the size of some things,” he said of compositions in quarantine. “But also the opposite has happened. I haven’t stopped working.”
This fall, he’ll also unveil his second opera “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” with a libretto by Kasi Lemmons, at the Met in New York — making it the first opera composed by an African American to premiere at the hallowed venue.
Meanwhile, there’s no doubt Spike Lee and Blanchard will work together again. They’ve remained close ever since Blanchard played trumpet on “Mo’ Better Blues” and “Do the Right Thing” before scoring “Jungle Fever,” when Lee told him, “You have a future in this business.” When asked if they keep in touch between projects, Blanchard laughed.
“Man, please, he doesn’t keep in touch with me because the Knicks weren’t doing well,” he said. “He’ll talk to me now that they’re playing a little better.”