Defining the Anguish of The Tethered with the Composer of ‘Us’

We chat with Michael Abels about musically communicating the torment of the film’s antagonists.
Us Scream
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on June 19th, 2019

There should be no confusion when the title card hits the frame. You’re in Jordan Peele‘s American nightmare; prepare your psychology. For his sophomore feature, Peele returns with composer Michael Abels to deliver another haunting critique on the state of the union. Us is as scary as it is angry, digging into our subterranean conscious to expose the routine evils that the middle and upper classes abide/commit to maintain the status quo.

Structured similarly to their previous collaboration, Get Out, Us begins with a bizarre and startling expression of violence followed by a tone-setting score layered atop the credits. The tune we hear is “Anthem,” Abels’ sonic declaration of the anguish experienced by the film’s doppelgänger antagonists. We hear the sighs, the moans, and the chants of The Tethered announcing their mission statement to the pounding of an orchestral march comprised of contradictory instruments.

Do mi na vi cri fo sa ci (mi re fa re)
Do mi na fi cri fo san (do re fa fe ro)
Do vi re mi ta tu so fe (ci re mi do)
Do vi re tu fa si lan (mi re fo la re)

The words are meaningless, but their emotions are real. All the surface needs to understand is the rage emanating from below. They’re done starving on our scraps; they’re coming to make what’s ours theirs. Abels’ task is to put the definition into the undefinable. What The Tethered cannot vocalize, Abels can.

I spoke to the composer on the phone a few days before the home video release of Us. Our conversation begins with what musically separates Us from Get Out and the satisfaction that comes from working with a filmmaker of clear, direct vision. Peele wanted the audience to experience duality from every element of the new film, asking Abels to smash instruments together that normally would remain far apart. The composer discusses how Peele’s improv nature carried through in replacing Tchaikovsky with Luniz only after the success of “I Got 5 On It” scored a massive reaction during the initial trailer release. Abels is an excited conversationalist eager to share the thrill of working with such an energized crew and a passionate director looking for every department to thematically engage with the content of the script.

Here is our conversation in full:

How did your experience on Us differ from that of Get Out?

Well, let’s see. What was similar was that I read the script before we even started shooting and Jordan had me go work on some ideas. But what was different was that he just said, “You know, it’s a film about dualities and just give me some ideas of instruments that wouldn’t necessarily go together.” Armed with that, I wrote a bunch of different little demos of things, not even knowing whether he thought they would work in the film or what scene they’d go in, but he kind of likes that. He kind of likes to hear the music and see if it speaks to him regarding any scene in that film.

And when you’re told to find instruments that aren’t normally compatible, is that an exciting challenge for you or…? 

Oh, sure.

Yeah? You never doubted such a bizarre choice?

No, no. Jordan really welcomes collaboration and he likes weird, both visuals and sound. So nothing you do is going to strike him as too left field. It may be to a left field that he’s not visiting in this film, but he really appreciates you going out on a limb. It was exciting for me and I just let my imagination run wild.

So, armed with that knowledge and that sort of theme, how did you tackle the screenplay as a composer?

It helps me to have some scenes in mind. I’m not going to pretend that I haven’t read the script, that doesn’t make sense. I think of a couple scenes and how they might look and what the music might be like. But I deliberately didn’t tell Jordan, “Okay, here’s the scene” and then try to set it up for him. Because he’s the director. He knows what it’s going to look like, not me. I just numbered the pieces; I didn’t even give them titles. I just numbered the pieces and let him figure out which ones he liked as he edited them roughly together. Some of the music that I had written cropped up in the rough edit. And that’s how I knew, “Hey that one works for him.”

But how did it work for you? What was your lightbulb moment for this score? 

It was more gradual. I mean one of the pieces I did right at the beginning where it was clear what it was supposed to be. It was “Anthem,” which the main title. It was similar on Get Out. Jordan likes doing the titles at the beginning, kind of old school. With Us, he wanted another track that could play as the title to kind of define the sound of the film. So, once I had that track and he liked it, I knew that that was a good jumping off point.

“Anthem” is an astonishing title track.

Thank you very much.

It’s incredibly haunting and you carry that emotion throughout the rest of the film. The track is expressing the experience of The Tethered, correct?

Yeah. It’s a nonsense language. It may sound a little Latin, but that kind of has to do with the sort of syllables and the sort of the structure of the melody. It’s not trying to be in any language, but it is trying to be the emotion of The Tethered, for sure.

How do you go about composing that language or that emotion in “Anthem?” Where do those sounds, those sighs, those moans come from?

Well, a couple of things. One of Jordan’s themes is that he likes to take things that we are used to hearing or seeing in one context and twisting them to a context that sort of ruins it for you forever. One example is the children’s voices that we hear at the beginning of “Anthem.” He thought it would be great to use children’s voices because normally we think of them as so sweet and he wanted them to be creepy.

That was a starting point, but then also, you can’t understand the words but you needed to come away with the idea that these people are organizing and that’s not good. And nothing says organized like a march. Marches bring armies and armies are the most organized thing. And so it needed to be a march, but it also needed not to be specifically one culture. There’s an important line in Us where Red cocks her head and says, “We’re American.”

So, “Anthem” needed not to sound specifically of one culture in a way that is representative of our country but also a little terrifying. The way it does that is instead of being a traditional march, it’s much slower. It makes you listen to each word much more when it’s slower. Then there’s a very funky beat that’s nothing like a regular march that drops early on in the track.

How did “I Got 5 On It” get incorporated into the score itself?

Once again, that inspired by Jordan. Where he wanted to take something that means something in one context and twist it. So, he wanted to do that for the trailer, but after people really responded to that, it was really clear that we needed to have that pay off in the film as well. So the scene at the end, the “Pas de Deux” dance fight, which was originally in his script, we were going to use a piece of Tchaikovsky, a “Pas de Deux” from The Nutcracker, and it was shot with that and choreographed with that. I was all ready to do that, but then he said, “No, you know what it’s got to be? It’s got to be is ‘5 On It.'” So we did it.

And, again, when he says something like that, it just clicks with you? Makes perfect sense.

Well, it’s great fun, especially when we’re on the sound stage with the cello section and they played that da-dump-dum. I was explaining, “No, it’s ta-yump-dum.” They’re just like, “Oh, okay.” So, it was a lot of fun, but it was also very much, I’d say, a very exciting creative adventure. It’s one of the great things of working with him.

The way it was first revealed in the trailer — whoa. It knocks your socks off, but for whatever reason, I never thought you would carry it over into the actual picture. 

I got to say, another great thing about Jordan is like, he really responds well to feedback from his audience. He’s got a clear vision, but I think it comes from his comedy improv background, where you just, you tell a joke, and if it lands, if you’re good at improv, you respond. I think he brings that to his filmmaking, even when it’s horror and people don’t think of it as being in the same world.

In the past, you’ve referred to the score for Get Out as “Gospel Horror.” Do you have a name or label for what you’ve done in Us?

Gosh, that’s a great question. I wish I had a great answer. I don’t really. Certainly, voices play a huge part in the score of Us. And also the solo violin, and you really hear them. There is some really over-the-top kind of operatic moments in Us, but I don’t really think there’s a genre I could slap on to it.

Well, I guess that’s our job. We’ll have to do that for you.

I guess you’ll have to. Sorry.

The unharmonious choral terror (I tried) of Us is now available on Digital HD, VOD, Blu-ray and DVD.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)