“Devotion,” says composer Chanda Dancy, “is about true eternal love. How do you translate love of family, love of fellow human beings, love of country into music? That’s what the director and I wanted to create.”
Dancy’s score for JD Dillard’s film about an African-American pilot-turned-Korean War hero is among his greatest assets: a work for a massive orchestra (and, in short, a chorus) that explores the thrills of flying, the perils of war and The Dangers of War highlights the close emotional bonds forged between fellow aviators and their families waiting at home.
It took 109 Nashville musicians eight days to complete the score for “Devotion,” and if Academy voters recognize the achievement, Dancy could become the first black woman to be nominated for Best Original Score.
Dillard hired her more than two years ago, even before filming began. The first theme she wrote (titled “Measure of a Man”) was based on a reading of the script — “it was a hymn to the idea of positive masculinity,” she says. “JD loved it. The action sequence “Sortie” was the second major cue to be written, after the Previs and Dailies.
“For me, the best way to convey love to an audience is through themes, character themes, themes that come with a journey,” she adds. Devotion includes themes for Jesse (Jonathan Majors), Jesse’s wife Daisy (Christina Jackson) and his close friendship with fellow pilot Tom (Glen Powell).
However, Dancy’s score isn’t all about heroics and quick hot dog pilot figures. Her classical training shines through with sophisticated compositional techniques, as in the music for the Battle of Chosin Reservoir sequences. There are touching moments for Jesse’s wife and the desperate rescue sequence that occupies the last half hour of the film.
“We wanted something a little different,” says Dancy, “and we needed the flexibility to be able to record different sections and create orchestral sound effects.” Ocean Way Studios can only accommodate about 50 players per session, so she took the strings and woodwinds separately up, then brass, then percussion and finally choir.
She also wrote some of the fun big-band jazz that could be heard behind some of the soldier’s furloughed scenes. “Those eight days in Nashville were, for lack of a better word, magical,” she says.
The Texas-born composer and violinist has been working towards this success for more than a decade. A graduate of USC’s scoring program and a graduate of the Sundance Composers Lab, she has worked steadily in the indie world and written well-received concert works. Arts Boston named her one of “10 Contemporary Black Composers You Should Know”.
Then, in 2020, her score for Netflix’s The Defeated caught attention. “That was the proving ground,” she says. “I wrote four hours and 15 minutes of music in six weeks”, recording with an 85-piece orchestra in Prague.
Dancy has also provided the dramatic score for the upcoming Whitney Houston biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebody, which premieres December 26.