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Terence Blanchard: Road to the Oscars

Terence Blanchard | LA Phil

This year, Terence Blanchard received his second oscar nomination for his Original Score on Spike Lee’s 2020 war film Da Five Bloods. This moment is a culmination of Blanchard’s exceptional work in film as Spike Lee’s only composer since 1991. Not bad, considering the fact that years ago, Blanchard didn’t even “know that job existed.” Though chance plays a role in Blanchard’s success, his past tells the story of a talent whose dedication and brilliance make this moment seem inevitable. This is Terence Blanchard’s road to The Oscars. 

Raised in Louisiana in the 1970s, Blanchard started to play the trumpet at age 8. If that seems late, don’t worry. By then, he had already been playing piano for three years. He developed his craft in band camps and high school music classes, where meeting friends like Wynton Marsalis would later shape his path. But even then, he needed nurturing. When Piano teacher Roger Dickerson took an interest in Blanchard, the young man began to truly pursue his artform. “If it wasn’t for this guy, I wouldn’t be doing anything.” Blanchard told the Hollywood Reporter. “I told him that I had thought about composition, and then next thing I knew I was like…16 years old and he had me writing a piano concerto…” After highschool, Blanchard studied at Rutgers and toured with different ensembles. Soon, he’d meet the collaborator that would change his life. 

Blanchard’s transition to film happened quickly. When Spike Lee finished his film Mo Better Blues–about a  jazz musician played by Denzel Washington–he brought on Blanchard to play the trumpet while Washington mimed the movements. What happened next almost seems like a movie in itself. One day, Lee heard Blanchard improvising melodies on the piano. “And I said, ‘Terence, what is that?,” Lee told NPR. When Blanchard insisted it was ‘nothing’, Lee disagreed. “I said, ‘no, no, don’t give me that;… we should make this the theme for Bleek Gilliam played by Denzel Washington.” They did. When Lee’s next film Jungle Fever was nearing completion, Blanchard was tapped to do the score. Blanchard has written every Lee score since. 

In 2018, Blanchard received his first nomination for his work on Lee’s Blackkklansman. Blackkklansman is the true story of a black police officer who infiltrated the KKK in the 1970s. Inspired by the film’s era, Blanchard’s score references one of the counterculture’s biggest icons. Interpreting Jimi Hendrix’s iconic cover of the national anthem, Blanchard filtered Hendrix’s message through Blackkklansman’s. “I just felt like (Hendrix) was screaming to everybody… ‘we did as much for this country as anybody else; and we should be afforded all the protections and the rights just like anybody else,” Blanchard told NPR. Instead of Hendrix’s screams, “Main Theme – Ron” features sad guitars that seem to cry, as militaristic drums convey a Black man’s tension between his inner emotions and outer obligation. Blanchard’s nomination for Blackkklansman carried a similar weight. If Blanchard had won, he would’ve been the first black artist to win Best Original Score in 30 years.

After the loss, Blanchard and Lee kept things moving with Lee’s 2020 film Da Five Bloods. As Blanchard told Awards Daily,“(Spike) was talking to me about making this film…while we were at the Oscars…Normally he would take a break, but he said, ‘no, I start shooting next week.’” Da Five Bloods tells the story of 4 Black Vietnam veterans who come back to Vietnam years later for the gold they hid there during their youth. As Blanchard’s valiant orchestra devolves into a Bernard Hermann-esqe horror score, “What This Mission’s About” mirrors the Black Vietnam veterans’ experience: ignored by their country…until they are asked to fight for it. In all his work, Blanchard’s process involves osmosis: watching his collaborators’ work and responding. “The movie tells you what it needs,” he told The Hollywood Reporter

With scores so aligned with Spike’s messages, it makes sense that Blanchard only started receiving Oscars after Lee’s work gained mainstream appeal. Much of Lee’s early work was misunderstood. As Blanchard explained in Awards Daily, “They want to label him the angry black man, and it’s like, ‘no, listen to what he’s saying.’” But this era has changed things. “The public has been coming around to what Spike has done…..Last year when he was nominated for an Oscar…he received a standing ovation before the next name was called.” This year’s nominations are a response to a new era. But like last week’s subjects, Blanchard hopes it will last. “It was beautiful to be a part of a very diverse class of nominees.” Blanchard told Awards Daily “I only look forward to hoping…that trend becomes the norm.”

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