Jordan Peele’s smash hit Us is dominating the box office and sparking a lot of discussion due to the idea that everyone sees its intent and purpose differently. While Peele’s first movie, Get Out, was more cut-and-dry in the message being portrayed on screen, this one has definitely been left up to interpretation. One of the constants in both movies, however, is the symbolism inherent in pairing well-known songs with foreshadowing scenes, and the kind of flawless musical direction that turns typically elating songs into soundtracks fit for a horror movie.
Michael Abels, the musical composer of Us, is the kind of creative force who can find the intersection between culture and emotion by using notes and sounds. Just by adding a space in between two instruments, he has the power to evoke fear from a song that was originally geared around rolling one up with your people. He created the musical compositions for Us that also bring the duality of the story into sharp perspective. Abels said that even when he’s crafting music, he always has the idea of storytelling at the forefront of his mind.
“I look at composing [and] writing music as storytelling, regardless of the medium,” Abels said when we discussed his process recently over the phone. “You’re trying to take listeners on some kind of journey, and it’s also very much a pure emotional expression. There’s some specific emotion that I’m expressing and that I’m trying to have others feel in their own way. So, in that sense, writing for film was natural for me.”
Being able to use music as an escape or release is something very special for Abels. The movie sets the scene of a middle-class family taking a vacation to one of Santa Cruz’s beautiful beaches. While it seems great on the surface, lead character Adelaide, portrayed Lupita Nyong’o, is facing her inner demons by returning to a once-traumatic experience where she encountered a living, breathing mirror version of herself as a child. The horror of a break-in by her family’s evil counterparts and the resulting quest for vengeance by the evil family sets up the plot for Abels to create his soundtrack.
“A lot of the emotions that the characters are expressing on the screen are not ones I’d choose to have in my regular life,” he explained. “But it’s really nice to be able to have an excuse to be able to express those emotions of terror and despair and things that we all face, but we’d rather have them be in a much more manageable, safe environment like a movie theater.”
Abels had the tough task of conveying mostly-unknown levels of terror, horror, and hopelessness and finding a juxtaposition with the main characters’ “tethered” counterparts. In one respect, half of the characters are going through the most traumatic experience of their life, one in which they face their own mortality while questioning their own sanity. The other set of characters, neglected mirror images only attached by body, are in the midst of the most hopeful and vivacious moment of their lives. Creating this duality was something unique and, while a bit of a challenge, it created an opportunity for something new and different as inspired by director and film writer Jordan Peele.
“Jordan had me read the script before he had shot any of the film,” Abels recalled. “This was a similar process to Get Out in that respect. Then, he is very conscious of the power of music and film, and particularly in suspense and horror. So, he’ll tell me the type of music that he’s thinking of, and, in the case of Us, he said, ‘Clearly, the whole story is about duality in both the mirror image and yet the alternate image, so why don’t you try experimenting with some sounds that don’t go together, a couple of deliberately unconventional choices, and see what happens.’ I did that and I came up with some demos, some examples of me just experimenting with things that I wouldn’t have otherwise experimented with if he hadn’t told me to go and play in that sandbox.”
The results of that experimentation can be heard on tracks such as the film’s main title song “Anthem.” In the song, you hear not only a terrifying, thrilling build-up track, which uses a melodic marching beat, but also offers the haunting voice of children harmonizing. Peele and Abels’ inspiration plays off of the duality of something as sweet and innocent as children mixed with the horror and petrifying sound their arrival brought in the film.
Abels described this process of creating the soundtrack as one that looked to shed light on the unusual without being overbearing; he likened it to hearing a sound outside your house, in the sense that you could hear the same five sounds on a daily or weekly basis from outside, but the one time something sounds even a little different, it sticks out in your head and creates a cause for concern.
“When you’re trying to make people feel afraid or nervous, or have anxiety, using sounds is the primary way that you can accomplish that,” Abels explained. “When we hear something just outside our houses, let’s say, we don’t know what it is, we’re instantly drawn to, ‘What was that?’ So, musically I’m doing the same thing, I’m trying to find music that is something that is a little undefinable that’s gonna make you pay attention in that way that you do when your senses are heightened.”