The latest Jordan Peele film is a fusion of a modern western with science fiction “first contact” horror that puts a fresh spin on the UFO subgenre. The storyline plays out much like a Shayamalan film, particularly Signs, with the more somber tones of Villanueve’s Arrival. The point of view remains with the main characters in the middle-of-nowhere Midwest, much like Shayamalan’s films, but with a much more satisfying payoff. The somber tone remains understated yet tense and is interspersed with some truly brutal and shocking moments, making the quieter parts of the film all the more unsettling. Building the soundscape of this unique blend of genres is the intricate and fascinating score by Michael Abels.
Abels is a concert composer who studied West African drumming techniques at the California Institute for the Arts, and made his foray into film scoring with his immensely well received scores for Peele’s first two films, Get Out and Us. These scores were more typical horror scores with emphasis on string and piano with a large choral and vocal element. The score for Nope, with science fiction elements adding a more action style to the film, becomes a grander, more orchestral score, especially in the third act.
The score opens with an introduction to the Haywood theme in “Haywood Ranch” and “Brother Sister Walk”, which is a descending two-note motif and the minor key gives an appropriate sad yet unsettling tone. These theme later reverses itself and becomes an ascending motif in “Growing Up Haywood”. In an interview, Abels stated that he and Peele had discussed how to use the score to indicate the threat level to the audience, and that is apparent with the uneasy tension early on to the pulsing, pounding rhythms with bold brass and low choir later.
The score comes into its own and takes on its own character with a secondary theme that is a wonderfully unique approach that consists of bouncing, repeating flutes. The first hint of this comes in “What’s A Bad Miracle” and the end of “Holy Sh*t It’s Real”. The theme was introduced earlier in the film, but the cue is missing from the album. On album, the theme is first played in full in “Preparing the Trap”. This cue brings the theme in on light percussion and guitar with a soft horn rising above it. The main tone for this theme is a flute rhythm that repeats over itself and was the element from earlier in the film that appears at the end of this track. The theme works very well in the film as it adds an element of motion to slower moments and helps drive the story. The staccato flute is reminiscent of the flute undertone rhythm in Hans Zimmer’s Thin Red Line, as well as the main theme rhythm in James Newton Howard’s Signs, and the gentle, eerie piano and violin rhythm in The Happening. Unfortunately, due to missing a few statements of the theme from the film on album, it does not have the feel of a major thematic component that it did in the film.
“It’s In The Cloud” takes the score in a new direction and introduces low brass blats and low string rhythms. Some true horror score elements enter in “Arena Attack”, “Blood Rain”, and “WTF Is That”. The “Preparing the Trap” cue starts to move the score into the final act and build the soundscape with a more layered orchestral feel with brass in the background. “The Run” ties in numerous musical elements from the score, bringing in some of the western feel as well as the period loudspeaker orchestral moments for the Jupiter ranch, heard in “Jupiter’s Claim” and “The Star Lasso Expeeerrriii…”.
Brass orchestration becomes central to the score in “Abduction” as the threat level builds and adds a darker, bolder tone to the soundscape along with a low choir. The finale of the film continues this bolder, more thematic trend with a series of stunning cues. “A Hero Falls” brings back the guitar western tone under string chords and horns, with the flute theme coming in toward the end, continuing to tie musical elements from the film together. “Pursuit” brings in low brass over pulsing strings and percussion that highlight the tension and threat level of these final scenes. Finally, “Winkin’ Well”, opening slowly with horns, then rising with the orchestra, segueing into moving strings that signal pending attack. Low brass pulses push through to the end.
The album closes with “Nope”, which is a whistle and acoustic guitar western theme first heard in “The Run”. The album brings in a lot of different musical elements, some of which are left sidelined by other musical ideas, but overall the effort makes for a fascinating score and works very well in the film. The ties to previous horror films, especially some of Howard’s work with the Shayamalan films of the early 2000s make it a fun listen. My one complaint is that the most interesting part of Abel’s score, the bouncy flute theme, is missing from the album presentation in a few key instances that would have presented it as a larger component of the score.