Welcome to Score Keeping, a feature where I dive into overlooked and highly praised songs, scores and soundtracks that accompany great films.
Near the midpoint of Spike Lee’s 1989 generation-defining classic Do the Right Thing, a strange but welcome moment is presented to the audience. Throughout the film a one-man Greek Chorus in the form of a character lavishly named Mister Señor Love Daddy (played by Samuel L. Jackson) takes a moment to stop the action and pay respects to the great and innovative black musical artists, both past and present. You see, Mister Señor Love Daddy is the neighborhood radio DJ in Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy for short) Brooklyn. We Love Radio, 108 FM to be precise. All day he sits in his studio spinning the platters that matter and looking out of his fourth wall, which just happens to be a big glass window facing the street where, on the hottest day of the summer, much of the action takes place. Mister Señor Love Daddy takes it upon himself to comment, interject and set the mood for the folks in Bed-Stuy as the temperature and tensions keep rising throughout the day.
So, when this “roll call” happens it’s a moment for the characters and the audience to sit and reflect right before the film is about to start its inevitable journey towards an explosive and tragic endgame. It’s also a moment that so eloquently captures the texture and conceit of Do the Right Thing‘s creative philosophy: to honor the struggle, beauty and legacy of black people past, present and future. The film pays equal attention to all the residents of Bed-Stuy no matter their age and illustrates how these generations all interact and inspire each other to create something (in this case, a neighborhood) that’s unique, colorful, fresh and distinctly American. The three middle-aged men sit, bullshit, and watch the children play as teenagers and twenty-somethings beat the heat and hustle for dough, while a wise elder and an old drunk deliver jewels of wisdom to whoever will give them the time of day. It’s a microcosm of the melting pot that is the black American lineage.
The roll call condenses that idea of generational interplay into a single moment and a list of names, the names themselves obviously carrying personal importance to director Spike Lee himself but also an importance to the fabric of music itself. There are broad connections like hip hop artists EPMD, Rob Base, Big Daddy Kane and Kool Moe Dee sampling the older R&B and jazz artists that are mentioned, but it gets so much more granular than that. Like how James Brown puts Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker front and center in his band and later they go on to join and flesh out the sound of Parliament-Funkadelic, which in turns gives a generation of DJ’s and MC’s a wellspring of samples to pull from. Or how Prince is responsible for launching the electro-funk and R&B group Morris Day and the Time featuring Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and they in turn go on to produce a bulk of Janet Jackson’s most successful albums. Not to mention the straight lines you can draw from one artist being inspired by an older artist and innovating on the work they have passed down (Mahalia Jackson to Aretha Franklin to Whitney Huston). It’s the constant dialogue of an aural tradition that isn’t just passed down but that is always being swirled together, mixed and ultimately remixed in a very late 20th-century way. Much like the film itself.
In that way this scene compliments the opening of the film which plays more like an overture than just your run-of-the-mill opening credits.
The song “Fight the Power” was commissioned by Spike Lee from Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad’s Hank Shocklee. Spike wanted an anthem for the film. He originally asked for a rendition of “Lift Every Voice” but once Shocklee and Public Enemy frontman Chuck D nixed that idea, they came out of the lab with a song that’s largely considered one of the greatest of all time, a tapestry of samples and allusions from numerous black artists that when listened to as a whole doesn’t really sound like anything else that’s come before or since. Multiple beats from different songs are layered against each other and the friction almost gives off a polyrhythmic effect. Jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis’ solos are chopped and screwed together to the point of near abstraction. Small vocal cues from funk and R&B songs spanning three decades are used as punctuation and a real time dialogue between past and present. The songs being sampled are called out cleverly in Chuck D’s verses (sound of the “Funky Drummer” being the best example). The song itself functions as its own roll call of sorts, albeit one with a little more fury than the mellow midday laziness that Mister Señor Love Daddy intones later.
That contrast is appropriate. The roll call serves as an intermission for the film, a time when the stakes and conflicts have been set in stone and the audience and our characters need a breather before the temperature starts rising again. It’s a reminder to the audience that Do the Right Thing isn’t just a blistering morality play about racial unrest and misuse of police force in America, it’s a movie about the great things a community of people can create and how those things keep evolving and inspiring over time. The music and songs are hot today, and in Do the Right Thing’s estimation, they’ll be even hotter tomorrow.
A 4K restoration/30th anniversary screening of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing will take place on November 4 at 7 pm at the IU Cinema as part of the International Arthouse Series and the Ruth E. Carter: Afrocentric Cinematic Universes series, which highlights and celebrates the work of costume designer Ruth E. Carter.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between. To his chagrin, he shares no relation to Ruth.