“It just made sense to have Marvin’s voice in the movie as another character” — Director Spike Lee
Spike Lee inserts his trademark style in Da 5 Bloods: a slideshow of images, monologues straight to camera, the double dolly shot, educating the audience on overlooked African-American history and referencing old Hollywood movies (The Treasure of Sierra Madre's “I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!” and famed movie actress Hedy Lamarr). This film empowers Black voices while also humanizing the enemy, which in this case is the Việt Cộng. The enemy becomes a political construct and the soldiers from both sides realize they’re all the same in the end; both experiencing fear, emotions, engaging in relationships, and thinking they are fighting the good fight. And in this humanization, we see the absurdity of war. Especially for the Black GI’s who were dying for a country that treats them as second-class citizens.
So what better way to echo the tragedy and absurdity of the Vietnam war than the powerful backdrop of Marvin Gaye songs?
“Brother brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying” — What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye)
I can count on my hand the movies that use music as well as this. The soundtrack complemented the themes of absurdity, brutality, and the never-ending cycle of war, but also brotherhood, love, and compassion. The haunting soundtrack of Marvin Gaye’s voice — himself a symbol of peace who met a tragic death — amplified the messages of the movie.
Marvin Gaye’s switch from a Motown icon to a more smooth, soft-spoken artist with a political message cemented him as “The Prince of Soul.” He promoted non-violence and was ahead of his time in terms of peaceful activism through music. Plus, Spike Lee said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that Gaye’s music is “what the brothers in Vietnam were listening to, and what they were listening to as they came back,” so it feels appropriate within the setting of the film.
The theme of “war never ends” is persistent throughout Da 5 Bloods, but it’s equally apparent in Gaye’s seminal masterpiece “What’s Going On,” a concept album about Vietnam, ecology, racism, and religion.
The majority of the songs used were from the “What’s Going On” album. They were effective in deepening emotion, creating a particular mood, or underlying the film's core themes.
"For only love can conquer hate" — What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye)
Used for a pivotal scene towards the end, we hear the album’s title track’s vocals without any instrumentation, creating a bizarre, tense, and foreboding ambiance that serves the scene beautifully. The atmospheric and emotive isolated vocals from “What’s Going On” was a high point of the film’s music use.
“War is hell, when will it end” — What’s Happening Brother (Marvin Gaye)
Interestingly, this song was written from the perspective of a Black soldier coming back home from Vietnam. It’s something the vets would have understood deeply and been moved by.
This is the song they sing together as they travel through the jungle. In a sense, they are coming back to the only home they’ve known since the war ended. Which is war itself. Once they passed the point of fighting a war, everything changed, tying back to the central theme of “war never ends”. They are almost more comfortable returning to the jungle than they were in their civilian lives back in the US. One of the five bloods, Paul, has a particularly hard time getting over the war. He experiences daily trauma, night terrors and even starts supporting Trump.
“Trigger-happy policing” — Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) Marvin Gaye
This song is powerfully sung by Paul in a crucial moment of the film. At this point, he finds salvation from the trauma that’s been haunting him since the war. And just like in the song: “Just loves us, oh ya/ And He’ll forgive all our sins,” he gets a vision from his own personal messiah who fills his heart with faith and devotion to a higher power of love.
Marvin Gaye’s life mirrors the tragedy he talked about in his music: losing his onstage duet partner Tammi Terrell and dying at the hands of his father. His exploration of pain, absurdity, and love was the soundtrack of a generation. Da 5 Bloods was an excellent movie on its own, but Gaye’s music elevated it to an unforgettable cinematic experience.
Obviously, as a Spike Lee joint, Da 5 Bloods celebrates African-American greatness, culture, and history. It also empathetically portrays Vietnamese soldiers and the trauma experienced on both sides of the war.
(This article was originally published by Mick Cohen-Carroll on Medium.)