Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Ten Best Music Moments From Spike Lee Movies

As a huge fan of music and film, one of my favorite techniques in cinema is when a song is used to score a scene for enhancement. When done correctly, it elevates both the song and the movie into a heightened connection with the audience. Martin Scorcese, Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson are just a few of my favorite filmmakers who have both perfected this and have also created classic moments that are forever linked with a song (think of the Rolling Stones' medley during the "last day as a wiseguy" scene in Goodfellas or "Stuck In The Middle With You" from Reservoir Dogs).

While Spike Lee is among the most visually distinct filmmakers of his generation (hello dolly), I've also been very drawn to his choice of music in film. Just as much as the previously mentioned directors, Lee uses songs that we've long been familiar with and heightens whatever layers we've already associated with them, while also bringing to light some new ones. This year, he's delivered a new film, Red Hook Summer and the upcoming Bad 25 documentary. I figured now was as good a time to look back at the best of those moments. For all of you School Daze and Mo' Better Blues fans, I didn't include anything from them since they were mostly musical numbers and not scenes where the music served as the background. Opening credit sequences don't count either (sorry Rosie Perez and Public Enemy). ***SPOILERS AHEAD***

Disclaimer: I couldn't provide videos for all the scenes I discussed, but I hope you'll enjoy the ones I was able to embed.

10. "Newborn Friend" by Seal, Clockers

The usage of Seal's "Crazy" and KRS-One's "Outta Here" in their respective scenes were much more dynamic and attention-grabbing, but I was really struck by the restrained approach employed here. Detectives Klein and Mazzili (Harvey Keitel and John Turturro) arrest Rodney (Delroy Lindo), a notorious but low key drug dealer in the middle of the day for the entire neighborhood to see. We know that the detectives are doing this to increase tension between Rodney and one of his main workers, who is a person of interest in a murder case. The three veteran actors provide the scene with more than enough weight and the light sound of "Newborn Friend" almost signals a shift in power of the movie. It sticks out from the hip hop heavy soundtrack and its appearance is immediately noticeable.

9. The "I Love Jesus" song (sorry, couldn't find any info here), He Got Game

Throughout the movie, there is constant hype about how great of a prep basketball star Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen) is. The reality of it settles in quietly as Jesus watches himself late at night on a SportsCenter segment with a who's who of some of the most respected figures in the sport gushing over him. His father, Jake (Denzel Washington), is also watching the same broadcast from his motel room and both men look on with pride and amazement at seeing their hard work come to fruition. I couldn't locate any information about the song, but it's an uplifting gospel number with the refrain of "I Love Jesus" and one of the emotional high points of the movie. The sequence simply reminds us that for all the adulation and riches that await the younger Shuttlesworth, he's still human.

Skip to 2:57

8. "Nola (Vocals)" by Bill Lee feat. Ronnie Dyson, She's Gotta Have It

During a date in the park with one of her lovers, Nola is presented with a dance number set to a shuffling jazz tune penned by Spike Lee's father, who scored the movie. The scene is usually most noted for its switch from black & white to color, but the song itself is just as memorable as it details the carefree life of Nola. In a movie so occupied with sexual liberation, it's one of the few genuinely romantic moments, which I believe is a key reason Spike switched up hues.

7. "A Change Is Gonna Come" by Sam Cooke, Malcolm X

This Sam Cooke classic is probably one of the finest songs ever recorded in the history of popular music, so it will do wonders for just about any scene you set to it. In this instance, we follow Malcolm X on the morning of his murder, along with his family and assassins both on their way to the Audubon Ballroom, but the height of this scene (pictured above) comes from one of Lee's most iconic and meaningful dolly shots as the camera is solemnly focused on a man who knows that his time is short. It's one of Lee's most significant dolly shots because the slow pace of Denzel Washington moving forward allowed us to focus on his face and soak in the sad inevitability of what's to come. Add Sam Cooke to the mix and the moment is even more rousing.

6. "Ooh Child" by The Five Stairsteps, Crooklyn

The soundtrack for Crooklyn is near perfect in its selection and stands as my favorite out of all of Lee's films. Once again, the scene is helped by another song that's considered a well-known gem, but there may not have been any other choice. The young protagonist of the film, Troy (Zelda Harris), has to cope with the death of her mother, which also has varying effects on her brothers and father. The song is played from the funeral procession to the wake, where her and her oldest brother, Clinton (Carlton Williams), share a brief moment of compassion with each other after constantly butting heads throughout the movie. It's the first significant act of kindness toward Zelda that we see from Clinton and The Five Stairsteps provided the tender moment with a mildly somber, yet upbeat background.

5. "How Come U Don't Call Me" by Prince, Girl 6

As a phone sex worker, Girl 6 (Theresa Randle) crosses the line by regularly contacting a client (Peter Berg) outside of the job. One day, he tells her that he will be in New York and that they should finally meet face-to-face at Coney Island. With a movie filled with nothing but Prince songs, "How Come U Don't Call Me" was the obvious choice for this scene and it's made even more perfect by Randle's performance, whose face gradually turns from optimism to hopelessness the longer she waits around. One of the shots that always stuck with me from this sequence was of her riding a Ferris wheel by herself, looking over the place and slowly realizing that the man who had such revealing conversations with her will remain hidden.

4. "Bra" by Cymande, 25th Hour

Throughout the movie, high school teacher Jacob Elinsky (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has kept things professional with a flirtatious student, Mary (Anna Paquin), who doesn't make matters any easier on his conscience by constantly wearing midriffs. Circumstances lead them both to the same nightclub where Jacob interprets Mary signals as a green light. "Bra" helps keep the adrenaline at a steady level as we're stuck watching an inevitable collision course of bad decisions. The entire sequence is probably my favorite out the entire Spike Lee filmography.

3. "Shotgun" by Junior Walker & The All-Stars, Malcolm X

This scene takes place the night before Malcolm X's murder, as his assassins case out the Audubon Ballroom during a party, while Malcolm himself is holed up in a hotel room, stoically dealing with harassing phone calls. On paper, there isn't much action, but "Shotgun" is such a high energy song that the tension can be felt with something as simple as Malcolm picking up the phone only to hang it right back up. It's the first moment in the movie where we sense the end of X's life is near, which makes it all the more intriguing that such a jubilant song helped add to the uneasiness.

2. "Living For The City" by Stevie Wonder, Jungle Fever

Flipper (Wesley Snipes) has to hit the streets in search of his crack addict brother, who has left their mother in disarray by stealing her TV. Throughout the movie, drug use and its effect on society plays a secondary role, but the audience is finally faced to confront it as Flipper's quest takes him to the Taj Mahal, the premier crackhouse in the neighborhood. As Stevie Wonder sings about the realities of lower-class struggle, we see its absolute depth at the Taj Mahal, a dimly lit, toxin cloud-filled nightmare occupied by countless addicts. The point could be made that Jungle Fever is more concerned with the grip that crack has on the black community than with race relations—which I could go about for a few more paragraphs or so, trust me—and I think the use of "Living For The City" here is a key to that argument. Lee could have went with something sobering, but instead provided a song that made you alert. You're not supposed to sympathize or be educated when Flipper enters the Taj Mahal, but awakened.

Skip to about 7:32

1. "Baba O' Riley" by The Who, Summer of Sam

If there are any lingering doubts about what Spike Lee can accomplish outside of Do The Right Thing among those who are unfamiliar with his work, I present this scene from Summer of Sam as a prime example of his skill. The kinetic moments of "Baba O'Riley" are perfectly placed in a mish mash of sequences that follow Ritchie's (Adrien Brody) dual life as an aspiring punk rocker/erotic dancer and the aftermath left by the serial killer known as the Son of Sam. The movie marked the first time that Lee used rock music to score a scene and he naturally understood how to match the correct images to capture the dynamics of the song, which I don't think he got enough credit for. It shows on the screen when a director uses a song from a genre that they're not used to. The results can be obvious and provide no original connection to the music. Lee was able to take on classic rock a decade after his first full-length film and make it fit seamlessly as if he grew up with Who records all his life. The man was born to be a filmmaker is the best explanation I can come up with. Special honorable mention goes to the usage of Thelma Houston's "Don't Leave Me This Way" and "Won't Get Fooled Again," also by The Who, which could easily rank within the top 15 if this list went that far.


  1. Another great one is the fight between Dionna and Vinny in the car, when they're coming home from Plato's Retreat. Dionna standing there outside the car, finally, *finally* having called her husband on his crap and rising from the ashes, all to the sounds of "Dancing Queen"--just terrific!

  2. Also an excellent one! The songs were practically a secondary character all throughout, especially during intense exchanges like that one. After Crooklyn, I think Summer of Sam has my favorite soundtrack. So many good moments. I also really love the opening scene when they first enter the club to Machine's "There But For The Grace Of God." Such a kinetic way to start a movie.

  3. Lee's musicality is remarkable--just rewatched the Teenage Wasteland section of SoS and it's brilliantly edited. I have a history blog and was writing an entry on Lee's Malcolm X movie--I was looking for the name of the song playing over the sequence when the murderers are casing out the Audubon the day before, hence my visit here. Re: the "A Change is Gonna Come" sequence--if you listen to the woman to whom Denzel speaks outside the Audubon, even her voice is musical (listen to how she's modulating up and down). Almost certainly that's how she normally speaks but I bet Lee picked up on it and I think it add an extra grace note to the scene.

    1. I was surprised no one had gone into detail about Let's musical choices (which we both agree are extraordinary) and I really just wanted to see that side of his work receive the proper attention. It even got me a retweet from the man himself!

      I'll have to keep an ear and an eye out for that woman's tone next time I watch Malcolm X. It was already a very effective scene, but I'm curious to see if that little subtlety unknowingly affected my reaction. That entire movie just blew my mind as a kid. I was even more amazed when I saw footage of the real Malcolm X later on and at how accurate Denzel was. Lee in general is probably responsible for why I've appreciated cinema for so long.