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GET OUT – Michael Abels

getoutOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Get Out, from writer-director Jordan Peele, is a horror movie with a contemporary twist, providing a different look at the genre while commenting on the all-too-contemporary issues facing young African-American men. The film stars Daniel Kaluuya as Chris, a black man who agrees to spend the weekend visiting the parents of his white girlfriend, Rose (Alison Williams). Upon arriving, he meets his potential in-laws (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener), and for a while everything seems normal in their little slice of suburban heaven, but before long Chris starts noticing strange behavior among the guests at a party, and among the hired help, and begins to feel that something is terribly, terribly wrong. The film has been praised both for its subversion of genre clichés, and for its unflinching look at racial and social issues in modern American society, with special acclaim being afforded to Peele, who one critic said has “created a work that addresses the myriad levels of racism, pays homage to some great horror films, carves out its own creative path, has a distinctive visual style – and is flat-out funny as well”.

The score for Get Out is by the mixed-race classical composer Michael Abels, whose works over the past decades have included operas, gospel arrangements for choirs, and an art piece inspired by the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Director Jordan Peele specifically sought Abels out to write the score for Get Out – his film music debut – after watching a YouTube video of ‘Urban Legends’, one of Abels’s classical compositions, and because he thought his mixed-race heritage and genre-defying musical influences would help him to capture the right tone for the film. “Jordan gave me very clear direction for this score,” Abels says in the soundtrack’s accompanying press material. “He said that, above all, it needed to be seriously scary. He also said it needed to have some distinctly African-American elements without relying on stereotypes, quite literally wanting African-American voices to be heard.”

As such, Abels responded with a score which combines fairly traditional orchestral passages, including some quite bold and striking action and horror sequences, with hints of jazz and blues, and a choir singing in Swahili. The voices we hear are intended to represent the souls of slaves or other black victims of oppression, speaking to Chris from spirit world, and Abels says he opted for using lyrics in Swahili because ‘unintelligible lyrics are always scary’. “I wrote some phrases these souls might say, and then read the Swahili translations aloud to see what music occurred to me. Out of that process I wrote a couple of demos, and Jordan chose one of them, “Minor Trouble – Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga,” to be the main title for the film. The translation, allowing for some poetic license, is: ‘Brother, listen to the elders. Run! Brother, listen to the truth. Run, run far away! Save yourself.’”

These lyrics were then blended with more traditional instrumentation, including a string orchestra, harp, woodwinds, tuned metal percussion, and a small electronic presence. To help him with the nuts-and-bolts of writing to picture Abels worked alongside composer Tim Williams, who has vast experience conducting and orchestrating for numerous composers, and who himself has enjoyed some success over the last couple of years working on films like I’m Not Ashamed and Diablo.

Parts of the score are seriously impressive. “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga (Main Title)” introduces the score’s main thematic idea, with rhythmic, bluesy riffs and a choir whispering ominously in Swahili. This idea crops up later, in cues such as “Georgina Weeps,” the deeply disturbing “Mental Prep,” and the frantic “Chris Escapes,” anchoring itself as the movie’s primary musical identity, before receiving a full final statement in the “End Titles (Montage)”. A secondary theme is introduced in “Chris & Rose (Love Theme),” a pretty but downbeat 4-note motif for cello and harp augmented by twinkling electronic textures, which gives it a slightly dreamy feeling, as if somehow detached from reality. Unfortunately, it isn’t as prominent in most of the rest of the score, and doesn’t quite make the same impact as the vocal motif, although the reprise towards the end in “Rose Returns” is fun and creepy.

Cues such as “The House” and “Meet the Help” have an unusual multidimensional emotional feeling which is both warmly welcoming and oddly sinister, blending harp glissandi and pretty string themes with an ominous undercurrent that occasionally descends into moments of Bernard Herrmann-style suspenseful string scoring. However, things quickly go wrong, and cues such as “Ice Tea,” “Georgina’s Silhouette,” “Walter’s Run,” “Georgina at the Window,” and “Investigations” ramp up the tension with scratchy horror movie stingers, undulating strings, and eerie electronic sustains, and often include interjections from the ghostly Swahili choir, and even some Deep South vocal inflections which remind me of Thomas Newman’s score for Fried Green Tomatoes.

The extended sequence in “Hypnosis” takes these two styles and mixes them together, beginning softly and gently, but gradually incorporating the Deep South/Swahili vocal textures to add a touch of danger to the proceedings. As the score progresses, Abels allows his score to immerse itself deeper into the world of true horror movie music, through cues such as “The Auction,” “Ukelele Walk” with its doleful tolling bells, the brass-heavy and threatening “Photographs,” “Finding the Keys,” the vocally-enhanced “The Sunken Place,” the devilish “Surgery Prep” which sees the choir engaging in some Goldsmith-esque Latin chanting, and the aggressive “Race for the Teacup”. However, even here, Abels continually brings in rhythmic and textural ideas from the world of jazz and blues, giving the score a wholly unique sound that I haven’t quite heard before in this setting. The score does occasionally devolve into moments of less interesting ambient horror music, drones and sustains, clangs and bangs, especially towards the end of the score in cues like “Rod Calls Rose” and “Jeremy Attacks,” but these are few and far between and don’t do anything to undermine the rest of the music.

The only two drawbacks to the score are the bittyness of the album presentation, and the lack of what many listeners will consider a ‘true’ main theme. In terms of the album presentation, the score lasts for just over an hour, but is made up of 43 cues, many of them lasting for less than a minute. Some people find this lack of fluidity an annoyance, and may not connect with Get Out because of it. In terms of a main theme, it’s true that the score is much more concerned with texture and atmosphere than it is with melody, but that’s very much the nature of the horror genre these days. The Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga theme, while unique, is certainly not memorable in a traditional sense, and this may leave some listeners unable to truly engage with the score on an emotional level.

Personally, however, I found Get Out to be refreshingly different, a new approach to scoring horror movies that was clearly inspired by Jordan Peele’s own audacious take on the genre from the director’s chair. The way Abels combines the African and Deep South vocals, and the jazz and blues influences, with the sequences of traditionally dissonant and challenging orchestral horror scoring is very impressive indeed. Whether this experience will inspire Michael Abels to tackle more film work in the future remains to be seen but, on the strength of this debut effort, anything he scores down the line will certainly have my interest.

Buy the Get Out soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Prologue (0:20)
  • Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga (Main Title) (1:19)
  • Chris & Rose (Love Theme) (2:05)
  • The Deer (1:00)
  • The House (1:20)
  • Meet the Help (0:45)
  • The House Reprise (0:31)
  • Ice Tea (0:51)
  • Jeremy Enough (0:23)
  • Georgina’s Silhouette (0:12)
  • Walter’s Run (0:16)
  • Georgina at the Window (0:40)
  • Hypnosis (4:17)
  • Investigations (2:48)
  • Garden Party (2:01)
  • Andre Reveal (1:08)
  • Fist Shake (0:39)
  • Blind Art Dealer (1:16)
  • Georgina Weeps (1:35)
  • Get Out (0:43)
  • The Auction (2:54)
  • Ukulele Walk (0:42)
  • Photographs (2:06)
  • Finding the Keys (2:26)
  • The Sunken Place (1:13)
  • Rod’s Bing Search (1:51)
  • Educational Video (2:05)
  • Behold the Coagula (0:42)
  • Rod Calls Rose (2:42)
  • Mental Prep (3:52)
  • Teacup TV (0:18)
  • Surgery Prep (1:22)
  • Chris Escapes (1:04)
  • Race for the Teacup (1:54)
  • Jeremy Attacks (1:10)
  • Georgina Hit (0:47)
  • Georgina Attacks (0:17)
  • After the Accident (0:20)
  • Get Him Grandpa (1:16)
  • Walter Shoots (0:08)
  • Rose Returns (1:09)
  • Situation Handled (1:24)
  • End Titles (Montage) (4:20)

Running Time: 60 minutes 36 seconds

Backlot Music (2016)

Music composed by Michael Abels. Conducted by Timothy Williams. Orchestrations by Timothy Williams and Sacha Chaban. Additional music by Timothy Williams. Recorded and mixed by John Rodd. Edited by Brett Pierce. Album produced by Michael Abels.

  1. Katy
    March 6, 2017 at 10:57 pm

    What are the rest of the Swahili lyrics in Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga

  2. Adam
    March 10, 2017 at 12:29 pm

    This reminded me a bit of Komeda’s score for “Rosemary’s Baby.”

  1. March 7, 2017 at 10:58 am
  2. September 8, 2017 at 10:37 am

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