Bazawule’s first hire was actually the choreographer Fatima Robinson, a veteran who has worked with everyone from Michael Jackson to Mary J. Blige, and who choreographed the 2006 movie musical “Dreamgirls.” Bazawule recalled watching her videos for Aaliyah, his friends stopping the tape over and over to copy the moves, when he was a teenager in Accra. “She’s always had such a regal reverence and a curiosity about dance from all over the world,” he said.
Her hip-hop and R&B pedigree is evident in neck swivels and shoulder shimmies that connect TikTok dances to their 20th-century lineage. Some of the songs were sped up to match her moves, Sanders said. Bazawule also had her choreograph narrative scenes and help with the way the camera moves around the actors. “It’s always in a ballet with the narrative,” he said.
Bazawule is a multihyphenate who started as a painter, then became a hip-hop performer; he records as Blitz the Ambassador. (His given name is Samuel; his stage name, he said, had a lot to do with his production style: “very fast and very glitzy.”) But even he had trouble with the basic structure of a movie musical, incorporating songs into the action. “The biggest challenge was to figure out, how do you take this very sprawling music and turn it cinematic?” he said.
He separated the score into its three root genres — gospel, blues and jazz. And he brought in new arrangers for each: Ricky Dillard, Keb’ Mo’ and Christian McBride. (The original Broadway numbers are by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, pop and R&B songwriters.) He also wrote songs for the movie, including a beat-driven work anthem for Harpo, Mister’s son (Corey Hawkins). “The goal was to make sure that the music was always talking to each other,” he said, and to have it be in tune with a contemporary soundtrack.
His ambitions were evident from his first pitch to the producers, when he showed them a full storyboard he had pencil-drawn himself. During Bazawule’s presentation — via video during the height of covid — “I literally texted Oprah,” Sanders recalled. “I went, ‘Oh, my God, this is the guy.’ And she wrote back, ‘Yes, he is!’”