(March 2, 2019) Actually, Spike Lee has both now…the Oscar and the Jams!
This article celebrates Oscar-winning filmmaker Spike Lee by ranking the 20 best songs that were featured in or written specifically for his movies.
Spike Lee has been creating films for more than three decades now, including classics like Malcolm X and Do The Right Thing, plus cult faves like School Daze, Mo’ Better Blues, Crooklyn and Get On The Bus.
And now Lee, who is mostly seen these days court-side at New York Knicks basketball games, is back in the movie industry’s spotlight once again.
He received his first Oscar award this past week in the category of Best Adapted Screenplay for the 2018 movie BlacKkKlansman, the adapted story of how Colorado Springs police officer Ron Stallworth infiltrated the local Ku Klux Klan chapter in the 1970s.
But it wasn’t the award Spike really wanted. The highly acclaimed film was also up for Best Picture, which it lost to Green Book, another “true-story” film, but one that has received its share of criticism since it won the award.
Spike himself was visibly disgusted when the winner was announced last Sunday, and he quickly denounced the decision, saying he thought “the ref made a bad call,” something he probably knows a thing or two about given his lifetime pass at N.Y. Knickerbocker games.
Yet it wasn’t the first time Spike was snubbed in the Best Picture category by a feel-good film about a black-white, driver-passenger relationship in the racially tense south. In 1990, the movie that was arguably his best, Do The Right Thing, was not even nominated and the award went to Driving Miss Daisy, a film in which a black chauffeur drove an older Jewish woman around in Atlanta and ultimately formed a bond despite their inherent cultural differences.
The script was flipped this time, with Green Book exploring the relationship between the renowned black musician Dr. Don Shirley who was driven around in the Deep South by his white chauffeur (Tony Lip), himself dealing with his own racist views.
This deja-vu Oscar snubbing was intensified by the fact that Spike himself has made a film or two that focused on race relations in America, although his were rarely set in the Deep South. Instead, they mostly took place in places north like his hometown of Brooklyn or even Chicago.
Many folks – well, maybe except Donald Trump (who recently called Spike a racist…what!?!) and his followers – were pulling for Lee this year, if for no other reason than the fact that he’s been in the game for so long. He’s directed more than two dozen feature-films since 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It, and, for whatever reasons, it’s not often his flicks are recognized by the Academy (admittedly, some of his more recent movies haven’t been among his best).
Others have taken a more agnostic approach to Spike winning an Oscar, saying that it’s not necessary for black directors and actors to get their validation from an institution that has historically overlooked people of color.
In the end, diversity was well represented at this year’s Oscars, but Spike Lee was once again left out in the cold for the biggest award, while losing for a second time to a film about race relations told from a non-black perspective.
Regardless of where one stands on Spike Lee’s films or their Oscar-worthiness, one thing is certain about them: Spike Lee Joints just wouldn’t be “Joints” without the music.
Nearly every one of his movies have been represented by a dope-ass soundtrack with songs that are integral, heck even crucial, to the storylines. The music in Spike Lee’s films has been expertly woven into the movies’ fabric, and the renowned director has rarely missed when it comes to picking the right songs for the right moments in the right films.
Whether it was the opening credits to his best movie, Do The Right Thing, or the closing ones to his most recent, BlacKkKlansman, Spike and his music supervisors have always had an ear for the perfect jams to set the tone for the drama we’ve watched unfold.
It is with that in mind that djrobblog takes a look back at Spike Lee’s top 20 best musical joints and counts them down from #20 to #1. It’s a celebration of his most recent (small) victory, but more importantly, his continuing legacy as Black History Month 2019 concludes.
Please scroll through the countdown of Spike Lee’s best movie songs below and enjoy!
“Anyone else here smarter than me?” That was the line from a bank-robber that followed his beat-down of a bank employee who thought he could out-smart the bad guy in “Inside Man.” When asked by the robber to produce his cell phone, the employee responded he left it at home. Minutes later, the robber checked one-by-one the phones he’d collected from other employees until he found one with the errant employee’s number stored inside. Upon dialing it, the giveaway ring-tone was Kanye West’s “Gold Digger,” a No. 1 smash from a couple years earlier.
Gave new meaning to keeping one’s phone in silent mode.
Spike’s 2015 movie about warring gangs in Chi-town received criticism for its depiction of a city that doesn’t need any more negative PR. This song from it is one of the film’s more critically acclaimed moments, from the unlikeliest of characters, Nick Cannon, who is known more these days as Mariah Carey’s ex and the current host of the very popular new reality TV competition show, “The Masked Singer.”
Spike Lee’s best movie Do The Right Thing produced multiple No. 1 hits. This one by the red-hot trio of Guy (featuring producer Teddy Riley) topped the R&B chart in late 1989. Try not to laugh if you watch the video of Riley dancing around in speedos while the Hall brothers back him in pleated baggies. Straight outta 1989!
Most people have never seen Clockers, the Spike Lee crime drama starring Mekhi Phifer, and including this beautiful ballad by Chaka Khan (and Bruce Hornsby on piano). It’s a song that many people have never heard, but it is a true beauty that evokes emotions as well as many other songs in the legendary singer’s repertoire. Check out the two legends in the linked video.
“He Got Game” is a case of Spike Lee reconnecting with his favorite go-to guys for both acting and movie soundtracks. In this example, it was actor Denzel Washington (in his third of four Spike Lee films) and the rap group Public Enemy (who contributed to “Do The Right Thing” and others).
It worked on all fronts as “He Got Game” was one of Spike’s higher grossing films, as well as being critically acclaimed.
With all the attention that “blackface” has received recently, how ironic is it that Spike Lee once made a film that satires it from the standpoint of black people wearing “blackface” makeup? That’s what 2000’s “Bamboozled” was all about.
Critics panned the film then, saying that it was so over the top in its satire that moviegoers would leave the theatre feeling bamboozled. The movie bombed at the box office, earning only $2.5 million total.
This Chuck D. collaboration with the Roots and Zach de la Rocha was pretty decent though.
Have you ever thought about how animalistic terms are used to depict relationships that society deems taboo? For example, an older woman is a “cougar” if she likes younger men, or a person is thought to have “Jungle Fever” if he or she is into people of the opposite race (usually reserved for white/black relationships).
Stevie Wonder and Spike Lee captures the absurdity of the latter example in the film and song of the same name in 1991.
Great soundtrack...give it a listen if you haven’t in a while. Meanwhile, check out Stevie’s video (filled with movie-related clips) above.
The Gamma Rays were the auxiliary girl group to the fictional black fraternity Gamma Phi Gamma in “School Daze.” Featuring TV sitcom favorites Tisha Campbell-Martin and Jazmine Guy, the quartet recorded this gem - and the accompanying performance in the movie - with all the class and sass of the group En Vogue, before En Vogue even existed!
The song wasn’t a hit like “Da Butt,” but it’s an underrated tune worthy of inclusion among Spike’s best. Check out The Rays’ performance in the video above.
There were multiple versions of the hip-hop group Crooklyn Dodgers, and two of them recorded music for Spike Lee’s consecutively released mid-‘90s films “Crooklyn” and “Clockers.” The song they recorded for “Clockers” consisted of Chubb Rock, Jeru the Damaja and O.C.
“Clockers,” a crime drama set in New York, may have failed at the box office, but its soundtrack wasn’t half bad.
Spike Lee’s most Oscar-nominated film includes this unearthed Prince cover of the spiritual that his estate released on his “Piano & A Microphone” album in September 2018. Spike Lee has said that it was pre-ordained that the song be included in “BlacKkKlansman.” Although the film was set in the early 1970s, he used it during a scene capturing images from the 2017 Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, just before the ending credits rolled.
Of course, we all got the message: same issues...different millennium.
Stevie Wonder had written songs for movies before. He’d even written and recorded whole soundtracks (“The Woman In Red.” “Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants”). But the movie most will associate the legend with is “Jungle Fever,” the soundtrack for which contained some of Stevie’s best post-‘80s work.
Songs like the title track (seen earlier in this countdown), “Fun Day,” “Gotta Have You” and “Chemical Love” resonated well, but it was the ballad “These Three Words” - Stevie’s best ballad of the past 30 years - that took the soundtrack over the top. See the video above for evidence.
In the 2018 film “BlacKkKlansman,” set in the early 1970s (clearly Spike’s favorite decade), the song “Too Late To Turn Back Now” by Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose is played at a nightclub while lead character Ron Stallworth dances with his potential love interest Patrice, one of the leaders of the student movement against social injustices towards blacks.
The song’s titular line could have been symbolic of both Ron’s budding interest in Patrice as well as his chosen career as a cop, where he would both try to sabotage a pro-Black rally and infiltrate the KKK.
The soundtrack to the film “Crooklyn” was chock-full of huge hits from the first half of the 1970s, including hits by the Persuaders, the Jackson 5, the Staple Singers and others, and any one of them could have been legitimately chosen for this list.
I chose two: this one and the one at No. 6.
For this one, Spike gets points for having the chutzpah to pick a song written specifically for another film, 1973’s “Superfly,” while the song itself (and Curtis Mayfield) get points for just being badass.
“Crooklyn” was a 1994 family film set in Brooklyn in the summer of 1973. One of the best songs used in it happened to come out in 1974. But Spike must have known that few songs captured the essence of family and love better than the Spinners’ No. 1 soul chart hit, “Mighty Love,” even if it didn’t exist until a year after the movie purportedly took place.
The French phrase “La Vie En Rose” literally translates to Life in Pink, but its loose interpretation is meant to conjure the phrase “life as seen through rose-colored glasses.”
Yet, given the song’s ominous musical setting, as well as the Spike Lee film in which it was used - about the impact of the Son of Sam (David Berkowitz) serial murders on a fictional group of Bronx, NY residents, I’d say life didn’t appear to be that rosy at all.
The legendary Grace Jones killed it though, as you can see in the above rare video.
I’m glad I got to attend the Million Man March in October 1995. It was a once-in-a-lifetime, unifying experience that may never be replicated. Spike Lee captured the essence of it all a year later in the film “Get On The Bus,” and who better to provide a song for it than legendary singer, composer and activist Curtis Mayfield, whose music always delivered messages of hope, dignity, unity and love.
Jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard has scored dozens of films, including many for Spike Lee as his go-to guy. But he didn’t receive his first Oscar nomination for Best Original Score until this year for “BlacKkKlansman,” which he lost to “Black Panther.” However, his most memorable soundtrack contribution may be the work he did for “Mo’ Better Blues” and Denzel Washington’s lead trumpet-playing character, Bleek Gilliam.
This stellar title track was written by Spike’s father Bill Lee. Check it out above - and reminisce.
If you weren’t already there, didn’t “School Daze” just make you wanna go to college, specifically an HBCU? Contributing to the euphoria of it all was this No. 1 soul chart smash from Experience Unlimited, a go-go-style smash that also reached the pop top 40 in 1989. Black sororities and fraternities didn’t like the so-called exposé Spike was laying down in some of the movie’s scenes, but jams like this one made it irresistible to watch...and wiggle that butt in the process!
Speaking of Oscar snubs, some would argue that “Malcolm X” was Spike Lee’s best film, and that it should have been nominated for more than just Best Actor (Denzel Washington) and Best Costume design (what!?!). Nonetheless, nothing was more captivating than the scene in which this Sam Cooke classic played, while the Civil Rights leader traveled to where it all would end. Although we knew what was coming, it still evoked tears - both then and now.
From Spike Lee’s best movie comes his best movie song, Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power.” Few movie themes set the tone as well as this opening credit backdrop, full of angst and anger and Chuck D.’s powerful cadence that no one else before or since could have delivered as effectively. If you weren’t already angry as hell by the time the credits finished rolling, you weren’t gonna be. Of course, that’s a lie, because the movie packed enough emotion throughout to justify its theme, and Spike has yet to match this film’s excellence, though he’s come close a few times.
Best line: “Elvis...was a hero to most, but...,” well, you know the rest. Check out the video above.
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres and lots of music news and current stuff. You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.