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MALCOLM X – Terence Blanchard

December 1, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Malcolm X is a biopic of one of the key figures in the American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and tells his life story – growing up subjected to Jim Crow racism in Michigan in the 1920s, dealing with his father’s death and his mother’s mental illness, his youth as a juvenile delinquent, becoming a Muslim while in prison, and eventually joining the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist organization that was denounced as a terrorist group by the FBI. Along with leaders like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X was a prominent campaigner for civil rights, until – like King – he too was assassinated, just as he was giving a speech in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom in February 1965. The film was directed by Spike Lee and starred Denzel Washington as Malcolm, alongside a supporting cast that included Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman Jr., and Delroy Lindo. The film was a huge critical success, and earned Washington an Oscar nomination for his powerful lead performance.

The score for Malcolm X was by composer Terence Blanchard. In the early 1990s Blanchard was well known in the jazz world as a virtuoso trumpeter and arranger, having worked with popular artists including Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, and Art Blakey, and having released some acclaimed solo albums of his own. Blanchard had performed trumpet solos on the scores for Spike Lee’s films Do the Right Thing and Mo’ Better Blues in the late 1980s, both of which were scored by Spike’s father Bill Lee, but by the time Spike directed Jungle Fever in 1991 he had fallen out with his father over the latter’s drug use, and Blanchard expressed an interest in scoring the film himself. As such, Blanchard made his film composing debut with Jungle Fever; Malcolm X, which came out in the fall of 1992, was his sophomore effort and, to my mind, remains one of his most outstanding works.

I don’t like to talk about race and color in my film music reviews because I think it often diminishes the conversation about musical excellence, but you can’t really get away from it when you’re talking about Malcolm X and Spike Lee, and there’s an interesting point to make here too. In 1992 you could probably count on one hand the number of black composers writing mainstream film scores. Quincy Jones, Stanley Clarke, Nile Rodgers, Marcus Miller’s work on a handful of Eddie Murphy comedies… and that’s about it, off the top of my head. Even those African-American composers who had scored major movies in the 1970s and 80s – Isaac Hayes, Herbie Hancock, Curtis Mayfield, J. J. Johnson, Roy Ayers, among others – were writing almost exclusively for so-called ‘blaxploitation pics.’ Almost no black composers were being hired for prestigious, serious films, but with his score for Malcolm X Terence Blanchard began to change all that.

The other thing that Blanchard did with Malcolm X is dispel the notion that black composers could only write jazz, pop, or funk scores, because Malcolm X is a complex, multi-faceted orchestral score of great depth and quality. In truth, black composers were of course always capable of writing scores like this, but with racism and pigeonholing being what it was in the 1980s and 90s, they were very rarely asked to do so, which is what makes Blanchard’s work here all the more important.

Malcolm X is an excellent score. It blends allusions to the music from Malcolm’s childhood – blues, gospel, some jazz – with a much more expansive symphonic sound that speaks to Malcolm’s destiny, his struggle for justice, and his importance in contemporary American cultural history. Quite a lot of Blanchard’s music also makes use of the voices of the Boys’ Choir of Harlem – the same ensemble that James Horner used so wonderfully on another Denzel Washington film, Glory, in 1989 – and their angelic tones give several scenes a religioso sound that further enhances the righteousness that Lee gives to Malcolm’s story. There are several recurring themes, including one for Malcolm, and one for his elegant and steadfast wife Betty Shabazz, but in reality the thematic complexity of the score is not as important as the heightened sense of in-the-moment emotion that Blanchard brings to many key events in Malcolm’s life.

Several cues stand out. The “Opening Credits” have a funereal, dirge-like quality anchored by a lonely, bluesy solo trumpet that is very effective at capturing the horror and anguish felt by the onlookers who witness Malcolm’s assassination. The liturgical sound of the Boys’ Choir of Harlem enhances this idea further, and brings similar feelings to later cues like the lovely “Black & White,” among others.

There’s a sense of world-weariness in some of the cues underscoring Malcolm’s childhood, especially “Young Malcolm,” although occasionally the elongated string passages are punctuated by chaotically rousing brass fanfares and unusually-phrased shrill woodwinds. There’s an unexpected playfulness and innocence to the pizzicato textures in “Cops & Robbers,” but this childhood frivolity is quickly brought back to reality in “Earl’s Death,” which showcases a Branford Marsalis saxophone part.

Cues like “Flashback” lean into Blanchard’s jazz and blues credentials with wonderful authenticity, and blend that style with some emotional, poignant writing for woodwinds and orchestra, which again illustrate the hardships of Malcolm’s youth with intimate expressiveness. “Numbers,” “Back to Boston,” and “The Old Days” are original big band jazz pieces, period perfect, and then “Malcolm Meets Baines” underscores the scene where an incarcerated Malcolm first meets the man who introduces him to the teachings of the Nation of Islam. This cue is almost charmingly romantic, and has a melody which has a sort of hymnal quality – as if this man is the catalyst that changes Malcolm from an angry young delinquent to a more thoughtful, spiritual man dedicated to positive revolution. The theme that emerges here is related to the Nation of Islam, and comes back in later cues such as “Malcolm’s Letter,” “Fruit of Islam,” the almost dainty “First Minister,” and others. “Fruit of Islam” and the subsequent “Chickens Come Home” also contain toe-tapping sequences of rousing Americana that sound like a military marching band, full of brassy pep and percussive vigor, as Malcolm takes his new-found doctrine to the streets.

“Fire” is the first of several cues that feature moments of brilliant, disarmingly abstract, sometimes tortured-sounding orchestral writing, illustrating the darker, and more dangerous aspects of Malcolm’s life, especially in the years following his estrangement from Elijah Mohammed, the founder of the Nation of Islam. People familiar with Blanchard’s more recent work on scores like Blackkklansman, Da 5 Bloods, and The Woman King will appreciate his early efforts at this type of action/thriller scoring; many of the ideas and compositional techniques he originates here would be refined over the course of numerous future scores, and hearing them at their inception is fascinating.

“Betty’s Theme” is a lush, defiantly old-fashioned piece of sparkling jazz for piano and saxophone, representing not only the romance between Malcolm and his wife-to be, but also the faithfulness and dedication she shows in supporting Malcolm throughout his life. The performance of the theme later, in “Betty’s Conflict,” features a lonely Branford Marsalis saxophone solo and a hazy wash of high Golden Age-style strings that go a long way to capturing the struggle Betty feels between her love for Malcolm, and her fear that his fiery preaching will ultimately lead to tragedy.

“Going to Mecca” is a fun piece of Middle Eastern cliché pastiche, but then the finale – from the unexpectedly poignant “Firebomb,” through the dramatically imposing “Assassins” and the bitterly sad “Assassination,” to the heartbreaking conclusive “Eulogy” – is deadly serious. The sound of the Boys’ Choir of Harlem in that final cue, lamenting for the tragically short life of a man whose work and conviction helped shape the course of the Civil Rights movement, and ultimately helped millions, is beautiful, and appropriately moving.

Considering that Malcolm X was only Terence Blanchard’s second film score, the high quality and sophistication he shows at capturing in music the complicated, conflicting life of one of America’s great civil rights leaders is outstanding. There is a constant sense of duality and tension at the heart of the score that is difficult to describe but hard to ignore, and it really proves that Blanchard was an extraordinarily sensitive, intuitive film composer, even at this early stage in his career. Anyone who has come to Blanchard’s music recently off his Oscar-nominated works for Blackkklansman and Da 5 Bloods should spend some time exploring these first works, because they underline what we now know – that Terence Blanchard has been writing outstanding, creative orchestral music for films for more than 30 years now, and everyone should have realized and celebrated it much, much sooner.

Buy the Malcolm X soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Opening Credits (2:15)
  • Young Malcolm (2:16)
  • Cops & Robbers (0:45)
  • Earl’s Death (0:38)
  • Flashback (4:19)
  • Numbers (1:12)
  • Fire (1:43)
  • Back To Boston (1:00)
  • Malcolm Meets Baines (3:05)
  • Black & White (3:56)
  • Little Lamb Vision (3:47)
  • Malcolm’s Letter (1:40)
  • Malcolm Meets Elijah (1:55)
  • The Old Days (4:00)
  • Betty’s Theme (1:03)
  • Fruit Of Islam (3:51)
  • First Minister (2:28)
  • Betty’s Conflict (3:33)
  • Malcolm Speaks To Secretaries (1:42)
  • Malcolm Confronts Baines (2:16)
  • Chickens Come Home (1:03)
  • Going To Mecca (1:51)
  • Firebomb (2:51)
  • Assassins (0:48)
  • Assassination (0:46)
  • Eulogy (3:51)

Running Time: 58 minutes 05 seconds

Columbia Records/40 Acres and a Mule MusicWorks CK 53190 (1992)

Music composed and conducted by Terence Blanchard. Orchestrations by Terence Blanchard. Recorded and mixed by Major Little, Douglas McKean, James Nichols and Sandy Palmer. Edited by James Flatto. Album produced by Terence Blanchard.

  1. Kevin
    December 4, 2022 at 6:05 am

    Good review. I’m glad you highlighted Blanchard’s collaboration with Spike Lee. Their work relationship is almost as extensive and multi-faceted as Williams-Spielberg or Silvestri-Zemeckis.

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