When Spike Lee puts out a new film, I always make a point to check it out, even if I hated his last one. He's directed more hits than misses, and even his duds have been quality duds. The first Spike Lee joint that I saw as a kid was Malcolm X, which I definitely did not understand at all beyond the fact that it was awesome. I was pretty well hooked after that.
One of the best things about Spike's movies (besides all the righteous anger) is the music. Songs aren't just background filler in a Spike Lee film. The director often devotes big chunks of screen time to scenes with no dialogue, just images set to music that evoke feelings you didn't realize were inside you. From jazz to hip-hop to R&B and soul, Spike Lee movies have served as a pretty great introduction to some incredible tunes over the years.
In honor of Spike's 55th birthday this month, I've been revisiting some of my favorite soundtrack cuts from his lengthy career and exploring a few that I never noticed before. Here are ten of the best.
Public Enemy, "Fight the Power" (Music Video): There's no piece of music more associated with Spike Lee than Public Enemy's masterpiece, "Fight the Power." This classic banger exploded like a bombshell during the opening credits of Do the Right Thing while a smokin' young Rosie Perez danced with the fury of 10,000 oppressed minorities. I've kinda had a thing for brassy Puerto Rican chicks ever since the first time we saw that unforgettable sequence, and God knows I'm not alone.
Spike and P.E. were such a perfect fit back in 1989 that he even directed this track's music video, featuring the dopest activist march/political convention/block party ever burned into celluloid. It made such an indellible impact, in fact, that nearly a quarter-century later I'm still afraid of a black planet.
Branford Marsalis Quartet feat. Cynda Williams, "Harlem Blues," (Mo' Better Blues): Spike Lee's musical tastes aren't completely consumed by righteous anger, of course. In fact, he's always displayed a soft spot for cool jazz. Mo' Better Blues includes some great numbers in it, but none sticks out like Cynda Williams' performance of "Harlem Blues" from the film.
Spike didn't skimp on the talent for the movie's soundtrack -- the music was recorded by the Branford Marsalis Quartet featuring Terrence Blanchard on trumpet, one of the earliest musical collaborations in a long partnership between Lee and Blanchard.
Naughty By Nature, "Hip Hop Hooray" (Music Video): By 1993, Spike Lee was Hollywood's hip-hop superstar after sparking acclaim and controversy in equal measure with Malcolm X. That year, he directed the music video for the rap song of the summer, Naughty by Nature's "Hip Hop Hooray," helping it hit No. 1 on the charts. Nearly 20 years later, it's still damn near impossible not to sing along to one of the greatest choruses in rap historAAAY! HOOOO!
Curtis Mayfield, "Pusherman," (Crooklyn): The soundtrack to Crooklyn was a love letter to the sounds of the inner-city '70s, and my favorite cut from record is Curtis Mayfield's classic "Pusherman." The song was a hit in the period of the film's setting thanks to its inclusion in another movie, Blaxploitation classic Super Fly.
Furious George, "Hello From the Gutters of NYC," (Summer of Sam): Another of Lee's films that explores overheated New York fear and rage alongside Do the Right Thing is Summer of Sam, and, like Crooklyn, its soundtrack included some truly classic '70s tunes. As a counterpoint to the movie's lush disco numbers, a young Adrien Brody performed Furious George's "Hello From the Gutters of NYC," a simple, punchy, punk anthem that perfectly illustrated his character's down-and-dirty hustler lifestyle. The song was certainly a unique flavor for a Spike Lee joint, and its sneering pout holds up nicely today.
Liquid Liquid, "Cavern," 25th Hour: 25th Hour is one of Spike's most underrated flicks, and one of its most memorable scenes features Rosario Dawson dancing to a DJ's mix of early-'80s group Liquid Liquid's "Cavern" in the most amazing silver dress that's probably ever existed, ever. Yow.
Today, this song is best known for its immortal bass line, which was sampled/swiped for Grandmaster Flash's "White Lines" and became something like a phenomenon.
Vanity 6, "Nasty Girl," (Girl 6):
They say that game recognize game, and Spike Lee has never shied away from seeking out the top talent in the music industry to help give his films a musical pulse. For Girl 6, that meant commissioning Prince to compose the entire soundtrack.
Originally, the film was to be a musical comedy with the actors performing Prince's songs, but test audiences trashed it so badly that the idea was scrapped. The final soundtrack included a bunch of songs by Prince and his various posse members, anyway, but the re-done movie was basically a turd most fans wished they'd skipped.
Still, Girl 6 did introduce us to this fun, slightly naughty tune by Vanity 6, so it wasn't completely worthless. Just mostly.
Fishbone, "Sunless Saturday" (Music Video)
Fishbone was a badass '90s band that basically mixed the best parts of every popular style of the day into a high-energy explosion of hard, happy, funky rock. They were unique enough to have influenced basically nobody in the past 20 years, but back in 1991 the band was riding high enough to score a music video for "Sunless Saturday" directed by Spike Lee.
The video's direction is appropriately manic enough, but I honestly don't know what the fuck it's supposed to be about. Which I guess fits Fishbone's music pretty well, but I don't recall this effort garnering any VMA nominations in '91. That was the year Queensryche's "Silent Lucidity" won Viewer's Choice, too, so clearly it was anybody's game.
The Rays, "Be Alone Tonight," (School Daze): School Daze is another of Lee's movies that we won't be picking up on Blu-ray, but it did include a sultry little pop tune by the Rays that made us wish that Tisha Campbell had starred in more stuff besides "Martin." The incredible wig she donned for this performance is almost worth the price of an iTunes rental.
Terence Blanchard, "Levees," (When the Levees Broke): One of the most agonizing Spike Lee films to watch is When the Levees Broke, his documentary on Hurricane Katrina and its devastating effect on the city of New Orleans. The mother and aunt of Lee's longtime musical collaborator, Terence Blanchard, had their house flooded in the storm, making it an intensely personal project for the trumpeter.
Blanchard pretty well outdid himself on the soundtrack for the film, much of which he later reworked with a 40-piece orchestra for his A Tale of God's Will album. If you can't hear the pain and loss in "Levees," your ass probably works for FEMA.