Last August, just five months shy of the world premiere of his latest film, Red Hook Summer, Spike Lee belatedly discovered its musical centerpiece. While attending a Michael Jackson tribute concert at Los Angeles’ W Hotel, the acclaimed director was stunned by a performance from Judith Hill, a young, unsigned artist who had been slated as a backup singer for the late pop star’s This Is It world tour. After Jackson’s death, Hill made waves with her stirring rendition of “Heal The World” at the singer’s 2009 memorial service.
Lee was quick to approach Hill backstage after the show. “If you’ve got any music to submit, I’ve got this movie coming up,” Hill recalls the director telling her. Says Lee of the classically trained musician he cast as the signature artist in his new film, “She’s a phenomenal talent. She can sing with the best of them.”
Ten of Hill’s songs, mostly soulful ballads, are featured in Red Hook Summer, one of several music-centric films premiering this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The film, which Lee is calling the fifth installment in his “ongoing chronicle of Brooklyn,” is spiritual: It tells the story of Filk, a young Atlanta boy whose mother leaves him for the summer with his God-fearing preacher grandfather in Brooklyn’s Red Hook housing project. Lee felt it essential that the songs he chose for the film, as well as its score, live up to its heavenly aura.
To that end, he enlisted longtime friend and collaborator Bruce Hornsby, who’d previously scored the director’s 2009 ESPN documentary Kobe Doin’ Work, to create “very stark” background instrumentals. “There’s no strings, no orchestration,” Hornsby tells Rolling Stone, describing his scoring for the film. “No dressing up. It’s just very bare-bones piano.”
Hornsby and Lee met twenty years ago through jazz great Branford Marsalis; Hornsby’s music is featured in Lee’s 1995 film Clockers and 2000’s Bamboozled. The pianist, most famous for his 1986 single “The Way It Is,” has otherwise turned down several opportunities to score films over his career. “I’ve been really selective about who I’ve worked with in every area of music,” he says. “But I know I would always do it for [Spike].”
Much of the anticipation surrounding Red Hook Summer stems from how little about the film is actually known. Until the director sent out a cryptic tweet on the first day of shooting last summer, he’d kept an airtight lid on any news surrounding the production. “That was done on purpose!” Lee says now, with a menacing cackle. And how did he keep things so quiet amid today’s know-it-all blogosphere? “We’ve got baseball bats,” he deadpans, before specifying: “Willie Mays and Hank Aaron Louisville Slugger bats.”
One nugget that did cause chatter, however, was Lee’s confirmation that Mookie, the Sal’s Famous pizza delivery boy who first appeared in his 1989 classic Do The Right Thing, would be making a reappearance in Red Hook Summer. But the director is quick to downplay the character’s role in the film, noting that many of his previous Brooklyn-based films have used recurring characters. “When the pizzas were delivered to the hostages in Inside Man, it was from Sal’s Famous Pizza,” Lee says. “The two cops who murdered Ray Raheim in Do The Right Thing, they reappear in Jungle Fever, and they also reappear in Clockers. These [films] evolve and keep on going and interact.”
When Red Hook Summer premieres this weekend at Sundance, Lee is making sure all of its key musical players are on hand to celebrate. He’s flying out Hill and her band to play at an after-party, and Hornsby will also be in attendance. Lee is hoping they’ll get the opportunity to jam together. “I’ve been rehearsing my band,” Hill says excitedly. “We’re getting ready for it.”
Sundance, says Lee, “is gonna be the place to be. We have a party at night and then after that we just party with the DJs till four in the morning.”