Bruce Hornsby Outlines How to Score a Spike Lee Joint

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At the beginning of Spike Lee’s new movie, Red Hook Summer, young Flik Royale is riding into Brooklyn from Atlanta to spend time with his overly religious grandfather. He’s holding an iPad against a clear car window and capturing the stark brick buildings as they pass by. In the background is a scant guitar melody and singer Judith Hill belts a rousing solo. It conveys a sense of unwanted separation.

Moments later, the sounds are edgier. Flik and his granddad Bishop Enoch, played by Clarke Peters (The Wire, Treme), trek the diverse neighborhood. Here, the tune is noticeably modern as young skateboarders roll down the sidewalk.

As with any Spike Lee joint, the music in the film is as important as the film itself. At times, the sounds play faintly in the background; other times, they override the dialogue. Take 1990’s Jungle Fever, for instance: There’s the unforgettable scene where main character Flipper (Wesley Snipes) walks through the Taj Mahal crack house looking for his brother Gator (Samuel L. Jackson) as Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City” aurally depicts the despair. Or the overt messaging of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” blaring throughout Do the Right Thing.

These days, musician Bruce Hornsby is at the helm of Spike’s musical universe, having composed work for films Clockers (1995) and Bamboozled (2000), and documentaries Kobe Doin’ Work (2009), If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise (2010) and now Red Hook Summer. “The music is virtually ubiquitous,” Hornsby says. “From beginning to end, the movies tend to go right along with that music happening.” Here are the five things you need to know about scoring a Spike Lee Joint, as told to Hive by Hornsby himself.

1. Spike Keeps It Simple

One time, he called me up and asked for an end title song for the movie Clockers. I was writing a song with Chaka Khan, so we steered it towards the movie. I sent him a version of it, and he said ‘Wow, I want to use this. It’s perfect for me.’ So that was really easy, but it wasn’t writing lyrics specifically with scenes from the movie. We had worked together before: he made a couple videos for my work. In 2001, he called me up and asked me to write and perform the end title song for his movie, Bamboozled. In this situation, he wanted me to write from the point of view of the lead character, which was a guy who had a lot of regrets about things he had done. I wrote this song, “Shadowlands.” Once again, it was real simple: I wrote this song and recorded it, sent it to him and he just said ‘Fantastic!’ I think he really liked it.

Jonathan Batiste, Spike Lee and Bruce Hornsby attend the "Red Hook Summer" premiere at Sundance 2012. Photo: George Pimentel/Getty Images

2. Each Time Is Different

A couple years later, Spike called me to do the score for his Kobe Bryant documentary on ESPN. That was more of your standard scoring situation, where the first order of business was to go to his house, where he showed me the movie. He would be in my ear saying, ‘Okay, I want music here, and there was time code there.’ I would write down the times of where he wanted music. In some cases, he would describe what he wanted, or what sort of mood he wanted. But generally, he just left it up to me in that case.

He also asked me to do a cue for his documentary, If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise, which was a sequel to When The Levees Broke. Here, he opted for an organ — something slow and somber. With Red Hook Summer, this was a different process yet again. In this case, he was making the movie and he asked me to score it. I was on the road for a month-and-a-half. [Laughs.] But he kept calling me and saying ‘Hey, can you send me something? You got any ideas?’ I had a few, but I had three days off. I told him I’d use all my time off to do this for you. [Laughs.] In this case, my score was totally solo piano. No other instruments. Spike told me he likes melodic music, so I had some vague marching orders there. At least I knew where I should go. I tend to go toward harmonically adventurous areas when left to my own devices.

3. Don’t Worry About Over-analyzing

By the time I’d seen Red Hook Summer, he took these pieces of mine — two- and three-minute bit pieces — and slid them into the movie where he liked it. To me, that seemed like a totally great way to work. As a film composer, you’re basically a gun-for-hire, you’re working for the director. It’s his vision and you’re just trying to enhance his vision. So in this case, I would send these pieces, he picked what he liked and he put ‘em where he wanted to put ‘em! It was very collaborative in that way. I’m scoring Spike’s next movie, Old Boy. I’ll have some picture to write to, but I think I’ll send him some pieces that I compose.

Photo: David Lee, courtesy of 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks

4. When Spike Calls, Say Yes

I’m still new. I used to get asked a lot to score films in the ‘90s up until about 10 years ago. I kept saying ‘no’ because I tend to like the more strange, left-of-center indie films. For years, I was asked to score a lot of romantic comedies or tear jerker romances. In the case of Spike, we’ve been friends for 20-plus years now, and we’ve worked together many times in different situations. This is just real natural. When he calls me up, I generally just say yes. I think he’s a total original. When I go see a movie, I’m looking for something I’ve never seen before, and you generally see that in his movies. Certainly in Red Hook Summer, you see that. Whether you like it or not, it’s not like any other movie. I’m happy to work with a true original, a totally unique voice. I think he’s a guy who’s unpredictable in a great way.

5. Expect the Unexpected

I think music is as important in creating the mood as the dialogue. Spike has his own way, his own sort of singular approach and aesthetic. For instance, his use of Aaron Copland’s music in He Got Game was very curious. It was totally unexpected, but it totally works. Old Boy is going to be a very different film. It seems to be a rather dark film — pretty jarring and intense — so I think my music in this case will be much more rhythmic, and a little darker. Certainly, I’ll know more once I see the first cuts of it.

Red Hook Summer is playing in select cities from now through October. The Red Hook Summer soundtrack arrives August 28.