Chanda Dancy on scoring I Wanna Dance with Somebody: “It comes down to respect. We’re not TMZ”

Chanda Dancy was destined to write music. Composing orchestral works at the age of 12, fast forward into her adult life and Arts Boston named her one of 10 Contemporary Black Composers You Should Know.

These days she’s known for her work on the Sundance award winning documentary Aftershock, the hit Netflix original The Defeated and Korean War era epic Devotion, and her latest project saw her working on a project centring around one of her musical idols.

Directed by Kasi Lemmons, I Wanna Dance with Somebody is a joyous, emotional, heartbreaking celebration of the life and music of Whitney Houston, one of the greatest female R&B pop vocalists of all time. The trick, says Dancy, was to steer away from the melodrama by being purposeful and respectful with the score…

Long before you were a composer, were you a big Whitney Houston fan?

I actually remember the very first time I heard I Will Always Love You, where I was, and what I was doing. I was in middle school and we were having some sort of field day, and the administration had the radio playing and I Will Always Love You came on. 

I remember being a little bit confused because there were no instruments, it was just her voice at first with the acapella part. When you're a middle schooler, you're like, ‘Oh, is that on purpose?’ But then it grows and then you understand, ‘This is a phenomenal song. This is different from anything you've heard before. This is amazing.’ 

That moment stuck with me. But my favourite Whitney Houston song is definitely Greatest Love Of All.

With that in mind, was it an immediate yes when you were asked to score the biopic, I Wanna Dance with Somebody?

It was one of the honours of my lifetime. There's no way when you're a little kid that you would imagine that you will one day be doing something like this. It's amazing. It's thrilling. I'm so proud. 

When Kasi Lemmons and Maureen Crowe contacted me, my jaw hit the floor….the nerves came later! It's like, ‘Okay, let me make sure that I do right by Whitney and her family.’

I remember the very first time I heard I Will Always Love You, where I was, and what I was doing.

Naturally, being about Whitney, music is integral to this film. What was the director’s vision for the score, and how did you allow the film’s musical numbers to shine?

It started with a conversation with Kasi, who knew Whitney and her family. It was important to be purposeful, respectful and beautiful when it came to the score – that's where the score needed to do the heavy lifting. 

It wasn't so much just being wallflower music in comparison to Whitney's iconic, amazing songs, it had to have a purpose, or else why be there? 

So that was what started the conversation, just talking with Kasi and also the head editor, Daysha Broadway. The three of us wanted to truly honour Whitney in the most heartfelt way that we could. And I feel like we pulled it off.

The score is the emotional glue that weaves in between Whitney's iconic songs. Was it tricky not to feel exploitative when composing a score that could very easily become melodramatic due to the nature of Whitney’s private life?

We definitely did not want to be melodramatic, but beautiful and respectful. That was the line that we needed to balance. I think the best way that we achieved that was to be very purposeful about bringing out the glamour and the sparkle and that special something that Whitney had. 

It comes down to respect: are you in it for the gossip? Or are you in it to fall in love all over again with this real human who touched us?

In the scenes about Whitney's private life, Kasi wanted a touch of angst, a touch of darkness – but only a touch. We're not being TMZ here and we're not being like, ‘dun dun dun…look at what she's doing!’ We're being non judgmental in the approach, so, that had to be done right and definitely required a delicate hand.

I did see a few comments from other other singers and celebrities who knew Whitney personally and they were speaking at the premiere here in the States, and it was a glowing review. 

People said, ‘Finally, this is the film that does Whitney right.’ And that's from people who knew her personally and have a little bit of skin in the game. That was very good to hear.

We definitely did not want to be melodramatic, but beautiful and respectful.

Two main themes, The Genius Theme, and The Waltz theme, permeate the score. The former represents all of Whitney's onstage glamour: it is grand and sweeping, while the latter represents her private life. Tell us about those two themes and what they bring to the film…

The main themes essentially represent different sides of Whitney herself. There's The Genius Theme, which is big, grand and sweeping – this is Whitney's onstage life. This is her dripping in diamonds and cascading down a mansion staircase with silk gowns and angel wings. It’s very sweeping – an old Hollywood, beautiful sort of score.

It’s contrasted with The Waltz Theme, which is a complicated waltz melody. It's still very beautiful, but it has unexpected twists and turns, which represents Whitney's private life. In using these two themes, purpose is the key word here. 

I keep saying that word, because it's very important – everything we placed, and the placement of the themes and what those themes said in the moment, were very much on purpose, very deliberate. That's what helped steer away from melodrama. It was a proper journey, musically.

The Genius Theme is Whitney's onstage life: dripping in diamonds and cascading down a mansion staircase with silk gowns.

How did you weave the score into the story and soundtrack, especially considering these are songs that are instantly familiar to most people?

There are quite a few moments where one of her iconic songs will end and then I needed to make sure that I was coming in in the same key and in the same sort of vein as a song. That was a very important thing for seamlessness.

Whitney’s iconic Super Bowl performance of The Star Spangled Banner in 1991 features in the film. What was the experience like when working your score around these real, memorable events, and weaving them into the tapestry of the score?

It was so invigorating. That particular scene as well – the cue that comes directly before her performance is really building up to that performance. So it's very thrilling and gives you the feeling that the hairs are rising on your arms in anticipation of something so great. That was a really great moment.

We wanted a touch of angst, a touch of darkness – but only a touch. We're not being TMZ here.

What is some essential kit you always use in your studio that you couldn't do without?

Right out of USC Film school, I worked for a sound design company and I learned all about sound design, sound editing, dialogue editing – you name it – and that spilled over into my composing. I was solely a classical orchestral composer working with orchestra-only, but then I went to the sound design company and next thing you know, I'm using Waves plugins to record my guitar or record my violin and putting it through various plugins and creating a different, fresh kind of soundscape.

I purchased Waves Diamond years ago, and I probably have every Waves plugin now! I also love using them to perform live. Waves’ panning plugin makes my violin sound pan from one speaker to the other and it adds this extra dimension in a live performance. That's really cool.

If I'm recording vocals or things like that you've got Vocal Rider and then mastering plugins, like MaxxBass and the L1 Ultramaximizer. Waves have been a part of my composing process since, I would say, 2006.

Waves have been a part of my composing process since 2006. I probably have every Waves plugin!

I've definitely spent way too much money on them [laughs]. Anytime there's an upgrade or anytime there's new bundles, I just collect more. I compose solely in Pro Tools, so I do the MIDI composition as well as the recording of any live solo instruments here at my studio, as well as any synths and combine them all in one Pro Tool session – working with that actual audio.

It harkens back to when I was working at the sound design company – it's not just the traditional sound of the instruments or the synthesiser or whatever you're recording – you can always turn it into something completely different and completely fresh using awesome Waves plugins.

I Wanna Dance With Somebody images via Sony.