Home > Reviews > DA 5 BLOODS – Terence Blanchard

DA 5 BLOODS – Terence Blanchard

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Considering that this week has seen worldwide protests relating to the death of George Floyd, systemic racism against black people, and the cause of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is perhaps appropriate that there is a new movie by director Spike Lee. Ever since he broke into the mainstream with his scintillating directorial effort Do The Right Thing in 1989, Lee has been at the forefront of African-American filmmaking, creating movies which tackle many of the aforementioned issues with insight, clarity, depth, emotion, and no small amount of theatrical skill. His latest movie is Da 5 Bloods, a Vietnam-era drama in which four African American war veterans return to Vietnam with a dual purpose: to search for the remains of their former squad leader, who was killed in action but was never returned home, and to uncover a hoard of gold that they found during the war, but which they were forced to bury. However, as the men journey back to what was once the front lines, they also find themselves confronted with the memories of their worst experiences, and how it shaped their lives since the conflict ended. The film was written by Lee with Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, and Kevin Willmott (who co-wrote Blackkklansman), and stars Chadwick Boseman, Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Jonathan Majors, and Jean Reno.

The score for Da 5 Bloods is by jazz musician and composer Terence Blanchard, who has been working with Lee since 1991’s Jungle Fever. Da 5 Bloods is the nineteenth collaboration of their career, but is only the second to be set in a war in the past, after 2008’s The Miracle at St. Anna which was set during World War II. Blanchard is an interesting composer; his jazz credentials are, of course, unparalleled, as is his talent as a trumpeter, but when it comes to his film work he has increasingly shown an impressive mastery at writing in multiple styles and genres. Over the last ten years or so Blanchard has developed a truly outstanding fully-orchestral palette, encompassing scores like the aforementioned The Miracle at St. Anna, Red Tails, the Oscar-nominated Blackkklansman, and Harriet, and Da 5 Bloods continues that momentum. I saw someone describe the score as ‘Jerry Goldsmith with Blanchard’s thematic textures,’ and this isn’t far off the mark. It’s a score which takes the jazz writing for which Blanchard is well known, and blends it with the emotionally complicated brass/string/percussion writing that Goldsmith often brought to bear on his war scores – scores which are inherently noble and patriotic, but which temper the patriotism with a brooding quality that also acknowledges the darkness and immorality of conflict. These are difficult concepts to convey with music, but Goldsmith did it – I’m thinking specifically about scores like the original First Blood – and now Blanchard has done it here too.

There are two main themes running through the score; one for the Bloods, and one for the concept of Vietnam – the place itself, the people, and the Bloods’ memories of being there. Virtually every cue is an exploration of one theme or the other, and the way Blanchard weaves the concepts together is excellent. The Bloods theme is introduced in the first cue, “What This Mission’s About,” which is replete with bold horns, stirring string writing, and militaristic drums which convey notions of honor, power, and steadfastness. There are some fascinating moments where Blanchard switches to a jazz-like minor key, which gives it a sense of darkness and uncertainty, and a few moments of overwhelming brass-led dissonance which are really outstanding, and which make the subsequent switch back to a major key feel more noble and patriotic. The cue ends with a lovely string elegy and a spectacular volley of brass which feels hopeful. The whole thing reminds me very much of some of film music’s best – not just Goldsmith, but also James Horner and John Williams; some of the instrumental phrasing brings to mind scores like The Sum of All Fears, In Country, Courage Under Fire, Born on the Fourth of July, and even JFK and Nixon.

The Vietnam theme is introduced in the second cue, “Otis and Tien Have Dinner,” and is anchored by a gorgeous, evocative ethnic woodwind performance by the outstanding Pedro Eustache, a regular collaborator with Hans Zimmer. Eustache’s woodwinds explore the cultural heritage of Vietnam, accompanied by lighter writing for strings and more traditional orchestral woodwinds. The constantly shifting textures create an unusual mood of intimacy and sadness which is quite palpable, and by the end of the cue the Vietnam motif is shifting cleverly between Bloods horns and the ethnic woodwinds, linking the two concepts together.

The rest of the score is a performance of one or more of these two themes. The Vietnam motif features strongly in cues like “Tien and Daughter Talk,” “David Meets Hedy,” and the confrontational “Paul and David Have a Fallout,” wherein the addition of snare drum riffs give the ethnic woodwinds a touch of uncertainty. Later in the score “The VC are Back” performs the Vietnam motif in a darker manner, with brass and strings played in a way that creates unease, and with a slightly chaotic finale. On the other hand, “Letter to David” and “David Talks About His Mother” are emotional and bittersweet, with especially poignant strings. Meanwhile, there are excellent statements of the Bloods theme in “We Bury It (For Now),” “David and Paul Get Spooked,” “Bloods Go Into Jungle,” “Lamb Wants Share of Gold,” “Otis Talks Family,” and “Paul and Norman,” among others. The version on “Bloods Go Into Jungle” uses insistent percussion to create a sense of purpose, and I especially love the way the theme is continuously passed around the orchestra, allowing it to shine. The version in “Otis Talks Family” is arranged for solo violin with a prominent plucked bass, and has a clever see-sawing effect that is quite unsettling. “Paul and Norman” is mostly slow and thoughtful, but occasionally erupts into frantic snare-and-brass cacophony, before enjoying a superb final minute of patriotic, noble trumpets, and warmly inviting strings.

A handful of additional cues are also worth highlighting as being especially excellent. “MLK Assassinated” feels very influenced by the music of Aaron Copland, and arranges the main theme for woodwinds, soft brass, and soft strings, creating a heartfelt, regretful atmosphere around this terrible and history-making event. Blanchard uses gorgeous but solemn chord progressions to really drive home the emotion of the moment, and builds to some excellent large crescendos in the finale. “Rice Paddies” is clever for one specific sequence when the Bloods theme and the Vietnam motif become one; for this one moment the Vietnam motif is performed by the instruments associated with the Bloods theme – brass and strings – and it links the men at the heart of the story with the geographical location in a tangible way. “Finding the Gold” slowly moves through multiple statements of the Bloods theme and gradually builds to a wonderfully triumphant finale, brass and percussion supported by soaring strings. Finally, the very brief “Paul is Bitten” is a terrific 45-second explosion of danger and panic, wherein the brass and the strings erupt into chaos, with the Vietnam motif screaming in anguish underneath.

The “End Credits” offer an outstanding 8-minute summation of the score, containing multiple statements of both the Bloods theme and the ethnic woodwind Vietnam motif, amid lots of beautifully phrased combination writing for strings and brass, flighty woodwinds, percussion rhythms, and cymbal rings. The music occasionally rises to loud, stirring moments of patriotic grandeur, and is tempered with several eruptions of chaotic brass-led dissonance and powerful banks of sound. If you’re at all on the fence over whether or not to listen to this score, listen to this suite first, because it’s an outstanding overview of everything it has to offer.

It’s been really interesting to watch the film music community’s perception of Terence Blanchard shift over the past few years, especially after his Oscar nomination for Blackkklansman in 2018. Blanchard has always been a terrific orchestral composer – scores like 25th Hour, Eve’s Bayou, Inside Man, Malcolm X, Original Sin, The Caveman’s Valentine, and others, proved it – but I think that it took the one-two punch of Blackkklansman and last year’s Harriet to really hammer this point into the heads of people who might have otherwise been inclined to ‘dismiss’ him as ‘merely’ a jazz composer. We can now add Da 5 Bloods to the list of superb Terence Blanchard scores; it’s a work of great orchestral sophistication, built around two very different but complementary main themes, and which often rises to boldly patriotic heights. It’s a score that Jerry Goldsmith fans will gravitate towards immediately but, really, anyone who enjoys richly crafted orchestral writing with an overall tone of brass-led Americana will find much to appreciate. And, if the film touches similar societal nerves and resonates with audiences like Blackkklansman did, don’t discount it from Oscar consideration in 2021.

Buy the Da 5 Bloods soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • What This Mission’s About (4:44)
  • Otis and Tien Have Dinner (5:06)
  • Tien and Daughter Talk (1:01)
  • We Bury It (For Now) (1:36)
  • MLK Assassinated (3:47)
  • David Meets Hedy (1:32)
  • Rice Paddies (1:29)
  • David and Paul get Spooked (3:45)
  • Bloods Go Into Jungle (2:15)
  • Finding the Gold (5:49)
  • Paul and David Have a Fallout (2:35)
  • Lamb Wants Share of Gold (1:04)
  • The VC are Back (1:03)
  • Letter to David (1:21)
  • Paul is Bitten (0:41)
  • Otis Talks Family (3:50)
  • Paul Loses Money (1:46)
  • David Talks About His Mother (1:55)
  • Paul and Norman (5:02)
  • Paul’s Letter (2:48)
  • End Credits (8:37)

Running Time: 56 minutes 46 seconds

Milan Records (2020)

Music composed by Terence Blanchard. Conducted by XXXX. Orchestrations by William Ross. Recorded and mixed by Greg Hayes. Album produced by Terence Blanchard.

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