An Auteur for the MTV Age: The Music of Spike Lee
Originally published June 15, 2020.
Although there are many famous film directors who got their starts directing music videos and even more who ventured into concert filmmaking over the course of their careers, Spike Lee may be the most emblematic filmmaker of the MTV generation. His emergence as a cinematic icon coincided with the rise of MTV as a cultural force in the 1980s, and as MTV quite literally reshaped the way we look at music, Spike has utilized our evolving visual relationship with music to change the way we look at the movies. Through the years, he has not only directed iconic music videos and concert documentaries, but also infused his entire filmography with music and dance in a way that reflects the cultural impact that music videos had on his generation of filmmakers and audience members alike.
Here are some of the best musical highlights from Spike Lee’s career:
Spike’s father, Bill Lee, is a jazz musician who scored many of his early work, and Spike’s appreciation for jazz has permeated many of his films. Spike’s reverence for jazz musicians is on display throughout all of Mo’ Better Blues, but never more than during this performance of the title song, played onscreen by Denzel Washington and in the studio by renowned jazz musician Terence Blanchard—who would himself go on to score a majority of Spike’s films over the last three decades.
Spike Lee may not have ever made a full-fledged, traditional musical, but he came closest with School Daze, which features several musical numbers performed by the cast. Several of them take place in the context of the film with diegetic music (as actual performances by the sororities or fraternities in the film), but the standout is “Good and Bad Hair,” a fantasy sequence and pitch perfect parody of school-set musicals of the 1950s (not unlike similar parodies in Grease). It’s not only wildly entertaining, but it sets up a perfect distillation of one of the film’s main themes: colorism within the African-American community. Like the best musical numbers, it’s fun, elaborate, and subtly smart (not to mention the best evidence for my long held stance that Spike should direct a full-on Broadway style movie musical).
Somewhat less conventionally, Spike opens his 2015 film Chi-Raq with what is essentially a lyric video of the song Pray 4 My City, performed by one of the film’s stars, Nick Cannon. As with many of his films, Spike uses music throughout Chi-Raq to establish mood and underscore themes, and here, the format meshes perfectly with his direct and confrontational filmmaking style.
Spike also uses dance as a storytelling tool. In BlacKkKlansman, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) and Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) develop a deeper connection by dancing together, while the lyrics of “Too Late to Turn Back Now” underscore the film’s themes and emphasize the characters’ need to continue their forward march towards progress.
Likewise, the swing dance scene early in Malcolm X helps to transform Malcolm from an inaccessible figure from a history book into a real person who did normal things like go out dancing with his friends. It’s a showcase sequence that perfectly places the audience in the period and highlights Ruth Carter’s Oscar-nominated costumes.
Finally, in what is probably the most iconic musical sequence in Spike’s filmography, the opening credits of Do The Right Thing, set to Public Enemy’s "Fight the Power" and featuring Rosie Perez’s dynamic dancing, set the tone for not just the film, but for Spike’s entire body of work. It’s an electric sequence that marks the beginning of a true masterpiece.
Beyond Feature Films
Like many filmmakers of his generation, Spike Lee didn’t restrict himself to feature films--he also branched out into directing music videos. In many cases, he directed videos for songs that featured in his films, most notably Public Enemy’s Fight The Power (commissioned specifically for Do The Right Thing), but also Anita Baker’s No One in the World from Malcolm X and E.U.’s Da Butt from School Daze.
And beyond the songs that appeared in his movies, Spike also directed videos for some of the biggest names in music, including Prince (Money Don’t Matter 2 Night) and Michael Jackson. Not only did he direct Jackson’s final music video (This is It), Spike also made two documentaries chronicling Jackson’s work: a 25th Anniversary retrospective of the music video for Bad (originally directed by Martin Scorsese and starring frequent Spike Lee collaborator Wesley Snipes) and a more traditional documentary about his early music career, Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall.
It’s not just big names that garner Spike’s attention, however; he also shot a documentary for PBS in 1990 about acapella music, and in 2008 he filmed the last three performances of the Broadway musical Passing Strange, a rock musical from singer-songwriter Stew, for broadcast as part of PBS’s Great Performances series. The musical was a moderate success on Broadway, but Spike helped it reach a much broader audience without sacrificing the immediacy and energy of the stage production.
From hip hop to R&B, from jazz to swing, from rock and roll to Broadway, it seems there’s no musical genre that Spike hasn’t committed to film in some form or another. His use of music as a thematic tool is only rivaled by his skill in depicting it on screen with genuine admiration for its artistry.