How Nope composer Michael Abels' score sucks viewers into Jordan Peele's UFO nightmare

Michael Abels’ score is so instrumental to the triumphs of Nope, the film remains a spectacle to behold even with eyes closed.

Prahlad Srihari September 27, 2022 12:01:24 IST
How Nope composer Michael Abels' score sucks viewers into Jordan Peele's UFO nightmare

What the films of Jordan Peele have shown beyond doubt is that he has a fine eye for visual details. What isn’t always spoken about is how strong an ear he has for music. Instrumental to the visual spectacle of his latest feature, Nope, is the aural spectacle. Like the people-eating flying saucer at the centre of the film, the score sucks you in. Michael Abels, collaborating with Peele for the third time in as many films, builds an amorphous soundscape that takes on the shape of its surrounding scene. It can be considered special effects in itself, in how it inspires an otherworldly dread of the sky and captures the allure of what lies beyond the horizon.

What lies beyond the horizon is a UFO treating a Southern California desert town like an all-you-can-eat buffet, devouring anything living, moving and gazing at it. Upon its discovery, siblings OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Em Haywood (Keke Palmer), heirs to a struggling horse ranch and descendants of the forgotten Black jockey who was the subject of The Horse in Motion, decide to capture it on camera in an obsessive get-rich-quick scheme for the ages. Meanwhile, their neighbour Ricky (Steven Yeun), a former child star and a survivor of an on-set massacre involving a chimp-gone-feral, decides he can make a killing out of turning the UFO into the star attraction of his Western theme park. Only, the UFO is violently resistant to the idea of being turned into any sort of spectacle — as both parties will come to realise.

How Nope composer Michael Abels score sucks viewers into Jordan Peeles UFO nightmare

As was the case in Get Out and Us, Abels’ score is tasked with nothing less than crystallising the very distinct mood of Peele’s nightmares, pressing the pace of the story, and cutting right to the heart of a moment. A highlight in Get Out was how the composer combined strings and Swahili-sung choral melodies to auralise warnings from the ghosts of slaves and every Black victim of oppression, beseeching Kaluuya’s protagonist from beyond, to flee. It is hard to believe Abels had not scored a single feature before Get Out. His work on the follow-up Us may prove to be a paradigmatic exercise on how to score a horror movie. Chorals and strings again make for an effective combo. The addition of drum beats gives a sense of foreboding to the “tethered” nightmare to come. The music bears the same kind of sinister yet playful quality that the film plies. For his score in Nope, Abels borrows sci-fi horror cues from John Williams and James Newton Howard, as well as Western cues from Elmer Bernstein and Ennio Morricone. Building on their foundational ideas, the music evolves to find a life of its own as it revels in the film’s own ideas and mysteries.

A cloud of tremolo strings descends on the wide-open spaces of Agua Dulce, signalling the impending arrival of the skyborne predator. These early sweeping passages are punctuated by moments of dissonance, drawing you in further and further into the film’s grasp. The score lurches and looms as if to echolocate the alien entity just out of sight. Withholding its terrifying form keeps us on edge. The wonder and terror of seeing it for the first time owes as much to the build-up. On its reveal, the agitated plucks of the strings paired so well with the swells of brass reflect the characters and our own conflicted feelings about this “bad miracle,” or “equal parts ‘Oh shit’ and ‘Oh my god,’” as Abels described it. “The music needs to have both those senses together,” he told IndieWire. “Both a little bit of a sense of awe like we would have looking at the Grand Canyon, but then also the urge to run far away from the Grand Canyon because falling in would not be good. That’s the dichotomy that’s present in the film.”

How Nope composer Michael Abels score sucks viewers into Jordan Peeles UFO nightmare

The dichotomy of soundtrack and sound design is much hazier, sometimes dissolving into a continuum of sorts. Abels uses diegetic music as a proximity sensor at one point. We know the UFO knocks out anything with a battery: camera, cell phone, radio or even a record player. In a scene, Em drops the needle on Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night” and the song crawls to a halt when the UFO flies close to the Haywood ranch house. How Johnnie Burn builds tension via sound design is also discernible in the two flashbacks to a scene of absolute carnage as a chimp attacks his human co-stars. We see little of it but we do hear a lot, from the pop of the balloon that triggers the chimp to it pounding the dead or unconscious bodies to it being put down by a single gunshot.

Counterpointing the more terror-inducing cues are the more tender cues that underscore the relationship between OJ and Em, a brother and a sister who wrangle in more ways than one and share a complicated family history. These warm interludes give the film an emotional bedrock before it enters its homestretch. The score swells to a crescendo in the rousing third act. Bernstein looms large over the orchestral flourishes, complete with brass fanfare, as OJ rides down the valley on horseback with the UFO in pursuit. It’s a hero’s journey bookended by an image of a Black cowboy on a horse surrounded by mist, as Peele reclaims a piece of Black history erased in favour of a White narrative with his own fiction. Before the end credits roll, a Morriconesque mix of guitars, chants and whistles kicks in, imprinting a lasting image to draw upon. Abels’ score is indeed so powerful, Nope remains a spectacle to behold even with eyes closed.

Prahlad Srihari is a film and music writer based in Bengaluru.

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