Composer Chanda Dancy had roughly two months to create more than four hours of orchestral music for The Defeatedthe Netflix series about life in Berlin following World War II.
She recorded with an 85-piece orchestra in Prague as well as solo elements in her studio in Pasadena. She crafted music of that time but added modern sensibilities. She mixed the sound of a grand, sweeping orchestra with synthesizers and elements of EDM.
And she met that incredibly short deadline.
“This was essentially like being asked to swim from Los Angeles to Japan,” Dancy tells The News84Media. “Me not knowing how long that distance is — I was like, ‘I can do that in a couple hours. I’m a good swimmer.’ It really didn’t sink in until I was done, honestly.”
“It was wild. I didn’t see my son for a month. I had my parents drive from Houston so they could help me,” Dancy continued. “I was working 22-hour days, easily.”
But the hard work paid off in a big way. When producers were looking for fresh voices to compose Devotionthe aerial war epic about two superstar US Navy fighter pilots during the Korean War, Dancy sent over the work she had crafted for The Defeated.
“A couple of weeks later my agent calls back and he’s giggling. He’s like, ‘The director, JD Dillard, wants to meet you,’” Dancy recalled. “We hit it off immediately. We were both tearing up, crying with each other via Zoom. We were just both so affected by this story and by what Jesse Brown went through. And probably a week later, I got the call that I got the gig.”
Not only does Devotion Mark Dancy’s first big-budget film, it is one of 15 movies shortlisted for best original score at the 2023 Academy Awards. If Dancy is nominated, she will become the first Black woman to earn a nomination in the scoring category.
“Beyond amazing. I feel amazing,” she said. “It’s all of my dreams coming true. I’m eternally grateful.”
Although she adds about the potential history-making stat: “That’s nuts. It honestly shouldn’t have taken so long. But it is what it is, right?”
Only 10 women have been nominated for best original score at the Oscars and four women have won, including Icelandic musician Hildur Guðnadóttir, who won the honor in 2020 for Joker. Guðnadóttir has also been shortlisted this year for her score Women Talking.
“Women, Black women and women of any color can write big budget orchestral classic scores that people listen to. We don’t have to be relegated to whatever the going stereotype is,” Dancy said.
The rise to the top for Dancy has not been easy — especially as a Black woman in a field dominated by white men. “I remember being literally denied a job as a composer assistant because I was a woman,” she recalled.
“Those words were actually said, ‘I like you, but you’re a woman,'” she continued.
But it didn’t faze her. At that point, she had received so much support she could easily brush off the nonsense.
After finishing college, she interned for Emmy- and Grammy-winning composer Mike Post, which gave her the chance to meet TV titans like Dick Wolf and Steven Bochco.
Dancy grew up a self-proclaimed “music nerd” who composed her first original at 12. Her grandmother, a classical musician, was her first piano teacher and her piano accompanist when Dancy performed at church.
Her love for Antonio Vivaldi grew strong and watching Itzhak Perlman play the violin on Sesame Street sealed the deal — this was now her instrument of choice.
She received a full scholarship to study violin performance and music theory composition, studied at The Henry Mancini Institute and moved to Los Angeles to learn more about film scoring at USC.
“I scored everyone’s short film, and then their thesis film, and then their web series, and then their first feature. It was just little by little, brick by brick, building up a resume of orchestral music that’s my own voice,” she said. “Then putting it on Spotify one day, the next thing you know there’s four-and-a-half hours of music that people are finding. Then they’re calling you for bigger projects, which is one of the things that happened with The Defeated.”
Though Dancy’s thick resume got her in the door for Devotionit was different for The Defeated: “I actually had to go through a pretty rigorous audition process.”
“That was a pretty serendipitous kind of thing. This was after the George Floyd protests, and honestly, there seemed to be a bit of an awakening in Hollywood at that time. People were really starting to open their eyes and put forth more effort to find people of color for projects. This music editor and this really big producer called me out of the blue and said that they found my name on a Google search for this 10 Contemporary Black Composers You Should Know article,” she said.
“They were like, ‘We would love for you to demo for this show,'” she continued. “It was really awesome because I got the gig solely on my ability to write for an orchestra and I had to prove that. I guess the rest is history, so they say.”
Dancy plans to continue to break the glass ceiling and said groups like the Composers Diversity Collective have been a great resource for her. There she met other Black female composers like Dara Taylor (Netflix’s The Invitation), EmmoLei Sankofa (Lizzo’s Watch Out For The Big Grrrls) and Amanda Jones, the first Black woman nominated in a score category at the Emmys.
Dancy is also an advisor for the Reel Change Film Fundwhich offers five-year grants and mentorship for composers of diverse backgrounds in film composition.
“Everyone just really needs that one big opportunity, and you knock it out of the ballpark, and that starts it,” Dancy said. “You needed a powerful enough person to put their reputation on the line for you — to convince these other powerful people that ‘yes, give her a chance.'”
Along with DevotionDancy also scored the Whitney Houston biopic I wanna dance with somebody. She has big goals and is in the process of doing more major work in Hollywood.
“I would love to do a Marvel film or something on a big grand scale,” she said. “I want more opportunities that allow me to just go wild with an orchestra.”
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