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US – Michael Abels

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Us is the sophomore effort of writer-director Jordan Peele, who took the box office by storm, and won critical praise, for his debut film Get Out in 2017. Both films are nominally horror films, with Us being more traditionally scary than Get Out was, but both films also delve much deeper into a whole host of political and sociological issues that most genre films don’t touch. Us provides scares a-plenty, but also takes its time to offer ruminations on identity, childhood trauma, and the overwhelming fear of ‘outsiders’ that currently permeates contemporary American culture. Oscar-winner Lupita Nyongo stars as Adelaide, who as a child had a horrifying experience in a funhouse by the Santa Cruz seaside boardwalk that left her psychologically scarred; now grown up, she reluctantly returns to the same resort with her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and pre-teen children Zoe and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex). Adelaide and Gabe are a normal, middle-class, affluent all-American family, and after spending the day on the beach with their friends (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker), they retire to their beach house. However, that night, they are assailed by four mysterious strangers clad in red jumpsuits, each of whom look like almost perfect mirror images of Adelaide and her family. What these doppelgängers want, who they are, and where they come from, is soon revealed to be literal stuff of nightmares.

The score for Us is by composer Michael Abels, who also made his cinematic debut with Get Out, having been a respected classical recording artist for many years beforehand. Abels’s work on Get Out was widely praised, so the anticipation for Us was quite significant; unfortunately, although the score does contain its share of effective moments and interesting intellectual concepts, the score overall tends to rely a little too heavily on familiar bang-and-screech horror conceits. That’s not to say that there are no parts of the score worth exploring, because there absolutely are, and the first one stems from the opening piece, “Anthem.”

One of the most recognizable and praised parts of the score for Get Out was the original Swahili song ‘Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga,’ which Abels wrote for the main title. “Anthem” is clearly an attempt to re-capture the same tone and energy of that piece, as it makes use of chorus and strings to create an unsettling mood. However, this time, the chorals are performed by a more western-sounding vocal ensemble, intoning nonsense words in made-up Latin with a highly specific, precise rhythm, backed by drums and metallic percussion. The Anthem idea returns in several subsequent cues, including the peculiar “Beach Walk,” the more introverted but still creepy “Boogieman’s Family,” the near-apocalyptic “Home Invasion,” the frantic “Escape to the Boat,” the dramatic “Immolation,” the militaristic “Battle Plan,” and the shocking “Finale,” making it the score’s singular memorable musical idea.

The rest of the score tends to adopt fairly standard horror movie tropes, making use of a string orchestra filled with anxious violins, a harpsichord for added texture, subtle synths, and Japanese taiko drums. Brass and woodwinds are almost entirely absent. Despite their general familiarity some of the ideas are nevertheless impressive. Abels says he was “channeling his inner Bernard Herrmann,” and you can hear that in many of the cues; pieces like “Spider,” “Ballet Memory,” and “First Man Standing,” are quietly unnerving, while other pieces like “Keep You Safe” almost have a danse macabre-like tone to them, especially in the phrasing of the strings. This is counterbalanced by the music for the idyllic family life of Adelaide and Gabe – before all hell breaks loose – which is conveyed with more orchestral warmth in cues like “Outernet,” although cleverly the pianos in that cue appear to be performing a more appealing version of the Anthem’s underlying chord structure.

Once all hell DOES break loose – starting in the middle of “Home Invasion” and continuing on for much of the rest of the score – Abels settles down into a series of unnerving textures which can be either aggressively angry or under-your-skin creepy, depending on the scene in question. Much of the music is written for tremolo and pizzicato strings and heavy, rumbling percussion hits, but once in a while Abels makes use of a different texture – a didgeridoo for Red, the doppelgänger of Adelaide, in “Once Upon a Time” and “Human,” or a cimbalom for Umbre, the evil twin of the teenage daughter Zora, which appears in tracks like “Run,” “Spark in the Closet,” “Zora Drives,” and “Death of Umbre”. However, for the most part, I found that a lot of these mid-album cues lacked real distinctiveness, and it was a touch disappointing to find Abels relying so heavily on tried-and-true horror movie stingers.

One thing that did fascinate me, however, was the fact that, throughout the score, and much like his director, Abels found himself obsessed with the idea of duality in music. As such, quite a large number of cues feel like they are opposite sides of the same coin. Things are pretty but chaotic, happy but sad, tonal but dissonant, all at the same time. Pairs of instruments often convey conflicting emotions simultaneously, so that the strings will be shrill while the piano is soft and enticing, the vocals will be soothing while the orchestra is stark and eerie, and so on. This idea of the music being a warped mirror image also comes into play as a juxtaposition for what’s happening on screen; Abels describes how, in one scene, Dahlia – the evil counterpart to Elizabeth Moss’s character – sensually applies makeup to her hideously battered face staring back in the mirror, but instead of the dissonant music you hear through most of the movie, instead you hear a very romantic, lush, old-Hollywood sound. This can be heard most prominently in “Femme Fatale,” and is a clever way of subliminally conveying a lot of the film’s underlying themes to the audience through music.

The final important element of the score relates to director Peele’s intentional pop-culture references, especially songs. Us’s primary marketing tool was a warped, twisted version of the classic 1995 hip-hop anthem “I Got 5 On It” by Luniz featuring Michael Marshall. The use of that song in the film’s trailers, where distant echoing vocals and stabbing strings gave the song’s finger-snapping groove a feeling of palpable dread, was enormously effective, but in the score Abels goes one better. “I Got 5 On It” itself sampled another song, “Why You Treat Me So Bad” by Club Nouveau, specifically a repeated rhythmic idea that ultimately plays under the choruses of both songs. For the film’s finale, “Pas Des Deux,” Abels took this rhythmic idea and transferred it to pizzicato strings, blended it with both his own score and a near-unrecognizable piece from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite, and then used it to underscore the ballet-inspired fight sequence between Adelaide and Red in the tunnels beneath the Santa Cruz boardwalk. It’s a brilliant collision of influences and ideas, which cleverly capture the conceptual thoughts that run throughout the movie, but also linger in the memories of audiences long after the credits have rolled.

Whether Us will have the cultural impact of Get Out remains to be seen, but even if it doesn’t tap into the same zeitgeist it is still an intelligent and enjoyable horror movie that offers some thrilling scares along with some relevant social commentary. Similarly, I doubt whether Michael Abels’s music for Us will have the same effect as the Swahili song from Get Out did. Although the creepy Latin chanting is certainly effective, and although the ‘I Got 5 On It’ remix from the finale has already worked its way into public consciousness, the rest of the score has too much traditional abstract horror music for it to cross over from the film music niche and into the mainstream. Some of the specific instrumental textures are interesting, and the intellectual concept behind much of the writing is fine, but I fear that too many people will simply pass over the bulk of the score’s middle section, having dismissed it as pretty typical thriller fare. I’d really like to see Abels branching out and working with directors other than Jordan Peele in the future, because as much as they inspire one another, I would hate for Abels’s film music career to be limited to him just being Peele’s musical mirror image.

Buy the Us soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Anthem (2:57)
  • I Like That (written by Janelle Monáe Robinson, Rico Wade, Patrick L. Brown, Ray Murray, Nathaniel Irvin III, and Taylor Parks, performed by Janelle Monáe) (3:22)
  • Outernet (0:46)
  • Spider (1:17)
  • Ballet Memory (1:11)
  • I Got 5 On It (written by Jerold Ellis III, Garrick Husbands, Denzil Foster, Jay King, and Thomas McElroy, performed by Luniz feat. Michael Marshall) (4:15)
  • Beach Walk (1:23)
  • First Man Standing (0:44)
  • Back to the House (1:10)
  • Keep You Safe (1:36)
  • Don’t Feel Like Myself (2:00)
  • She Tried to Kill Me (1:46)
  • Boogieman’s Family (1:25)
  • Home Invasion (4:11)
  • Once Upon a Time (2:59)
  • Run (4:39)
  • Into the Water (2:24)
  • Spark in the Closet (2:58)
  • Escape to the Boat (1:18)
  • Femme Fatale (2:13)
  • Silent Scream (1:24)
  • News Report (2:02)
  • Zora Drives (1:42)
  • Death of Umbrae (0:55)
  • Somber Ride (1:07)
  • Immolation (1:40)
  • Down the Rabbit Hole (2:34)
  • Performance Art (1:20)
  • Human (4:03)
  • Battle Plan (0:59)
  • Pas De Deux (2:51)
  • They Can’t Hurt You (1:45)
  • Finale (3:05)
  • Les Fleur (written by Charles Stepney and Richard Rudolph, performed by Minnie Riperton) (3:16)
  • I Got 5 On It – Tethered Mix from ‘Us’ (written by Jerold Ellis III, Garrick Husbands, Denzil Foster, Jay King, and Thomas McElroy, performed by Luniz feat. Michael Marshall) (1:43)

Running Time: 75 minutes 00 seconds

Back Lot Music Entertainment (2019)

Music composed by Michael Abels. Conducted by Pete Anthony. Orchestrations by Michael Abels, Edward Trybek, Henri Wilkinson and Jonathan Beard. Recorded and mixed by John Rodd. Edited by Brett Pierce. Album produced by Michael Abels.

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