Spike Lee is a man who knows how to wield music with a masterful touch. Whether it’s painting a realistic early 1970s New York by utilising The Chambers Brothers song ‘Time Has Come Today’ in Crooklyn or dropping you straight into the world of late ’80s with E.U.’s go-go classic ‘Da Butt’ in School Daze, Lee is as masterful at the needle drop as he is behind a camera.
When it came time for his most provocative film yet, 1991’s Jungle Fever, Lee had a bold choice in mind: he wanted Stevie Wonder to write a song for the soundtrack. “Stevie and I had a relationship before Jungle Fever,” Lee explained to Slate back in 2016.
“He wrote the song ‘I Can Only Be Me’ for my film School Daze. And one of my favourite songs ever is ‘Living for the City’—it’s about New York City. I said to myself, ‘One day, I’m gonna use that song in a movie’. And a lot of times I keep shit in my mind, and I say to myself, there’s gonna be a time when I make a movie and the song will reveal itself. So I said I knew I had to use that for Jungle Fever.”
Wonder had focused largely on progressive political anthems like ‘Happy Birthday’ before, but his track record on racial unity songs was dubious at best. ‘Ebony and Ivory’, his duet with Paul McCartney, curdled in saccharine schlock the minute it was released. But Lee knew that Wonder would deliver something magical, even if it took time.
“Now, when it came time to make the soundtrack, everybody and their mama told me that Stevie Wonder is notoriously late and there is no way he’s going to deliver the songs on time,” Lee said. “I heard this from his label Motown and from Universal Pictures. Still, I was determined.”
Despite what his physical limitations might lead one to believe, Lee explained that Wonder was not only a big movie fan, but also very particular about what kind of messages he would allow himself to be associated with.
“He replied, ‘I gotta read the script, Spike.’ Somehow Stevie got the script. He read it in braille. After that, we would send him scenes and Stevie would write songs custom-crafted for the movie. You have to remember: Stevie goes to the movies all the time. He has someone, an assistant, whisper to him what the imagery is. When you’re blind, sometimes you develop your other senses even more.”
Wonder wound up writing the entire soundtrack for the film, including the title song. When the album was released a month before the film, the simplistic nature of the song ‘Jungle Fever’ was the major sticking point for critics. It was shades of ‘Ebony and Ivory’ all over again, but Lee continues to defend the song.
“Here’s the thing though about the title track,” Lee says. “Stevie was writing for the movie. The song is just like my style of filming. I just come at you. I’m upfront. There’s been a lot of criticism of that song. But Stevie was serving the material. He was writing the songs in the in-your-face tone of the movie. You saw that scene with Mike [played by Frank Vincent] beating Angie [played by Annabella Sciorra] with the belt in Bensonhurst? It’s in your face!”.