At the Red Bull Music Academy, Spike Lee Dishes on Prince, ‘Do The Right Thing’ and How He Uses Music in Film

"Music can be the least understood tool for a director."

Last night at the SVA Theater in Manhattan, Spike Lee spoke with OG culture journalist Nelson George, taking a retrospective look at how music has influenced his filmmaking, and how he uses it as a tool to enhance his work. The discussion was part of the Red Bull Music Academy, a month-long festival with a diverse range of events showcasing the various intersections of music and other elements of culture.

For Lee’s part, his more than 30-year career (She’s Gotta Have It turns 30 on August 9) provides a wealth of material from which to pull from, but from the very beginning, it was clear that Lee’s life and films have been influenced heavily not just by music, but more specifically, by musicals. Early on in his chat with George, he copped to having been inspired by the memorable Ann Margaret number from the beginning of Bye Bye Birdie when directing the arguably equally iconic credit sequence from Do The Right Thing with Rosie Perez.

Lee detailed a number of ways that music can be used by a director: score, source, source as score, performance, credit sequences, and music videos. “Music can be the least understood tool for a director,” he said. Much of the event was spent watching various clips from his career that illustrated this, from a stock-footage-heavy video for Prince’s 1991 song “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” (“[Prince and I] weren’t in the same room,” he admits), a musical dance number from School Daze, Stevie Wonder’s “Living In The City” from Jungle Fever, a pair of very different Malcolm X clips, and a Michael Jackson video.

Hearing  Lee recount tales of working with some of the biggest stars in film and music is always nice, but his insights into his thought process as he crafted some of the most iconic musical moments in film were illuminating. And it’s hard to imagine anyone — let alone such a diminutive, bespectacled director — tell Chuck D that his first draft of “Fight The Power” wasn’t good enough. But it’s that very confidence that led to the enduring nature of Lee’s work, and why we’re still talking about Do The Right Thing more than 25 years later.

The Marquee outside of "A Conversation with Spike Lee", part of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival, at SVA Theatre in New York City, NY, USA on 02 May, 2016. Drew Gurian / Red Bull Content Pool
The Marquee outside of “A Conversation with Spike Lee”, part of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival, at SVA Theatre in New York City, NY, USA on 02 May, 2016. Drew Gurian / Red Bull Content Pool