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NOPE – Michael Abels

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The third film from writer-director Jordan Peele after Get Out and Us, Nope is an ambitious sci-fi horror saga, and a throwback to the creature-feature adventure movies of the 1980s. The film stars Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer as brother and sister OJ and Emerald Haywood, who own and train horses for the Hollywood film industry, and are based in an isolated ranch in the mountains of southern California. One day OJ witnesses a terrifying vision in the skies over his property that questions his understanding of reality, and before long he and his family are engaged in a desperate battle of survival against a force that only they, with their history of animal training, may be uniquely equipped to understand. It’s a clever film – funny, scary, exciting, visually compelling – but it’s also much more straightforward than Peele’s other works, aiming more to be a popcorn-munching good time at the movies than an exploration of any deeper underlying social issues. The film co-stars Steven Yeun as the owner of a nearby wild-west themed carnival park, Brandon Perea as a local Fry’s Electronics tech, and the gravel-voiced Michael Wincott as a famous cinematographer who helps them document the phenomenon.

The score for Nope is by composer Michael Abels, who made his film music debut on Get Out in 2017, and has since established himself as one of the most interesting ‘new composers’ in film music through scores like Us, Bad Education, and the acclaimed documentary Allen vs Farrow, the latter of which earned him two Emmy nominations. Abels has gone on record saying that he considers Nope to be his most ambitious score to date. The press material for the soundtrack release has a quote from him, in which he says; “There are elements from the genres of sci-fi, action, horror, and westerns, but always through the tonal palette of Jordan Peele’s unique vision. The lines between source music and score are blurred, as a good part of the score seems to be playing at the theme park, which is a key location in the story. The score is at times terrifying, yet also invokes the sense of awe and wonder that the characters feel as they realize what they are seeing. The film eventually becomes a grand adventure, and so the music expands into the larger than-life scale we expect of a summer blockbuster.”

This is really a perfect description of the score’s multi-faceted approach. Much of the first half of the score is made up of quite avant-garde orchestral horror and suspense writing, filled with extended passages for unsettling tremolo strings, nervously elongated sustains, and occasional moments of deeply distressing all-out dissonance. Cues like “The Muybridge Clip,” “Not Good,” “Park Kids Prank Haywood,” and “Progressive Anxiety” are filled with difficult, challenging textures for angrily growling cellos and agitated violins.

The brilliant “It’s in the Cloud” and the subsequent “Blood Rain” are throbbing masses of brooding, dissonant low brass clusters and scattered Herrmanesque strings that raise the hairs on the back of your neck. “Arena Attack” features a bank of horrific, chattering vocals backed by more anguished orchestral carnage, as the nature of the phenomenon is revealed in all its grisly, gory reality.

Some of this music occasionally reminds me of James Newton Howard’s score for Signs, while some of the moments of more percussive intensity have a feeling that reminds me of the incessant heartbeat pulse motif from Brad Fiedel’s original Terminator score. The thing about this music, though, is that its undeniable effectiveness in context does unfortunately diminish its appeal as a listening experience. Quite a lot of this music is very harsh and at times rather unpleasant – which is, of course, the point, but actually *experiencing* this music is often a patience-testing slog that requires determination and endurance.

Some moments of intimacy and warmth do sometimes peek through, illustrating the complicated but ultimately strong sibling bond between OJ and Emerald; cues like the opening “Heywood Ranch,” “Brother Sister Walk,” “Growing Up Haywood,” the moody “What’s a Bad Miracle,” and the more inquisitive and slightly playful “The Oprah Shot,” are softer and more tonally approachable, although even here the vague undercurrent of uncertainty and looming danger is never far away.

Things change in the aftermath of “Preparing the Trap,” which has a determined and tenacious sound featuring lighter plucked textures, metallic percussion, and a stronger and more approachable orchestral backing. Abels drops most of the horror stylings entirely thereafter, embracing a much more exciting and engaging action-adventure tone, encompassing the full orchestra. “Man Down” is an excellent example of this, relentless tick-tock tension, dangerous string tremolos and keening woodwind trills, which eventually explode into the first of several terrific and full-throated action chase sequences.

This bombastic energy continues through several subsequent cues. “WTF Is That” contains some impressive interplay between brass and woodwinds. “Abduction” uses enormous choral outbursts to add to the scale and scope of the music. The perfectly-named “Havoc” is pure orchestral chaos. “Em & Angel Fly” reverberates to thunderous percussion hits. “A Hero Falls” builds slowly and methodically to a massive finale, underscoring one character’s act of unexpected self-sacrifice to the gods of art. “Pursuit” is dark and relentless, an exercise in rhythmic tension that pits stark strings and bleak brass against a persistent tom-tom beat.

However, the pick of these cues for me is “The Run (Urban Legends),” a throbbing, dense, complicated string figure backed with a rousing percussive groove and bold, funky brass flourishes, that accompanies OJ as he gallops through his canyon on horseback, pursued by the phenomenon. Interestingly, this piece isn’t unique to this film; Abels actually wrote it as part of a commission from the Sphinx Organization and premiered it with the Harlem Quartet and the Sphinx Symphony at the annual Sphinx Competition in February 2012. Abels describes the piece as having ‘flavors of many forms of American music, including rock, jazz, hip-hop, and EDM, yet in a contemporary concert music setting,’ and was the piece that inspired Jordan Peele to ask Abels to score his film Get Out in the first place.

The final element of the score that film music fans are sure to appreciate are Abels’s nods to classic western film music. “Jupiter’s Claim,” which is the music that plays at the wild west attraction next door to the Haywood Ranch, has that classic Elmer Bernstein/Jerome Moross Americana sound. “The Star Lasso Expeeerrriii” is a brief but brilliant homage to the more modernistic Jerry Goldsmith western sound of the 1970s, but ends with a comedy ‘broken record’ moment that is actually quite chilling in context. Then the conclusive “Nope,” which plays over the first part of the end credits, is pure Ennio Morricone, guitars and whistles and gruff chanting voices against a lush orchestral backing. It’s just fantastic. These pieces, which sadly only amount to less than five minutes of the score’s total running time, make me want to hear what Michael Abels would do with a traditional, old-fashioned cowboy movie.

The album also features songs from the film, including a new version of Corey Hart’s classic “Sunglasses at Night,” Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By,” The Lost Generation’s “This Is The Lost Generation,” Exuma’s “Exuma, the Obeah Man,” and a never-before-released gem by a young Jodie Foster, “La Vie C’est Chouette,” which originally came from a 1977 French film called Moi Fleur Bleue. The real oddity is “Purple People Reader,” a spoken word performance of the lyrics from the 1958 Sheb Wooley comedy song ‘The Flying Purple People Eater,’ which is given a whole new lease of sinister life though its reading by Michael Wincott, but which basically gives away the entire plot of the film.

There’s a lot to like in the score for Nope. The short pieces of Hollywood western pastiche are worthy of praise for their authenticity, and the large-scale action music in the final 20 minutes is really quite excellent; this is a new side to Michael Abels that I haven’t heard before, and I really appreciated the dexterity in the orchestrations and the sophistication of the rhythmic elements. I hope he can bring this sound to a contemporary action movie soon, as I would like to hear him bringing something fresh and new to that genre. The drawback for some, however, will be the 30 minutes or more of very challenging, very aggressive dissonance for the horror and suspense sequences at the beginning of the film. In context this is very important, because it sets up the sense of fear and uncertainty that washes over the ranch, and eventually makes the more bombastic finale more intense; however, I won’t lie, some of it is tough going, and anyone with a low tolerance for screechy strings and severely atonal brass might have some problems with it.

Overall, though, I feel that the score is a success. It does exactly what it needs to do in terms of creating an atmosphere of mystery and tension, it cleverly evokes the nostalgic sounds of the western genre, and when Abels goes for broke in the film’s final moments, he offers some outstanding fully-orchestral thrills and spills. Rather than a ‘nope,’ this score gets a qualified ‘yep’ from me. And I haven’t even talked about the monkey massacre!

Buy the Nope soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Haywood Ranch (2:55)
  • The Muybridge Clip (3:17)
  • La Vie C’est Chouette (written by Pierre Billon and Francois d’Aime, performed by Jodie Foster) (2:44)
  • Jupiter’s Claim (1:43)
  • Brother Sister Walk (1:18)
  • Walk On By (written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, performed by Dionne Warwick) (2:54)
  • Growing Up Haywood (1:29)
  • This Is The Lost Generation (written by Gus Redmond, Fred Simon, Lowrell Simon, and Albert Tribble, performed by The Lost Generation) (3:34)
  • Not Good (2:00)
  • What’s a Bad Miracle (1:32)
  • The Oprah Shot (1:51)
  • Ancient Aliens (2:08)
  • Park Kids Prank Haywood (1:08)
  • It’s in the Cloud (2:37)
  • Holy Shit It’s Real (2:09)
  • Progressive Anxiety (3:02)
  • The Star Lasso Expeeerrriii (0:35)
  • Arena Attack (1:23)
  • Sunglasses at Night – Jean Jacket Mix (written and performed by Corey Hart) (4:38)
  • Blood Rain (1:47)
  • The Unaccounted For (2:36)
  • Preparing the Trap (2:41)
  • Purple People Reader (music by Michael Abels, lyrics by Sheb Wooley, performed by Michael Wincott) (1:35)
  • Exuma, The Obeah Man (written by Tony McKay, performed by Exuma) (6:12)
  • Man Down (6:02)
  • WTF Is That (1:13)
  • The Run (Urban Legends) (1:42)
  • Abduction (1:58)
  • Havoc (0:46)
  • Em & Angel Fly (2:20)
  • A Hero Falls (2:47)
  • Pursuit (1:49)
  • Wishing Well (3:42)
  • Nope (2:31)

Running Time: 82 minutes 52 seconds

Back Lot Music (2022)

Music composed by Michael Abels. Conducted by Anthony Parnther. Orchestrations by Jonathan Beard, Edward Trybek, Henri Wilkinson, Sean Barrett, Benjamin Hoff and Jamie Thierman. Additional music by Orlando Perez Rosso, Miguel Bezanilla and Cameron Moody. Recorded and mixed by John Rodd. Edited by Bret Pierce. Album produced by Michael Abels.

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