You may not know his name, but you might recognize the music of Michael Abels. He's the composer behind the scores for the horror films "Get Out," which won the 2018 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and "Us," a 2019 movie for which Abels received an award from the World Soundtrack Academy.
"I have been a composer since I was in middle school, actually. I have always thought writing music was the most interesting puzzle," Abels said.
Abels is biracial, growing up in South Dakota and Arizona with what he calls "the white side of the family." But after majoring in music composition at USC, he embraced his African American roots and the music influences of his heritage. He later produced an album with the late Rev. James Cleveland, a legendary gospel musician.
Though Abels is now an A-list film composer and member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, he wasn't always in Hollywood. For over a decade, he was a teacher and music director for a private school in Santa Monica, working on the occasional concert.
Then one day he received a voicemail from someone claiming to be a producer.
"It [turned] out that it was a producer," Abels said. "I called him back. He said Jordan Peele had seen one of my concert works on YouTube and wanted to send me a script to see if I’d be interested in scoring a film for him."
It was social media research that led filmmaker Jordan Peele to find Abels, then 54 years old, and entrust him with the soundtrack for his latest project: "Get Out."
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"He said he wanted the African American voice in the film, both lyrically and metaphorically," Abels said. "But unlike most African American music, [it] couldn’t have any hope it in."
The pair teamed up again on "Us," with Abels creating the score for the terrifying family drama.
Abels' work goes beyond composing. Knowing that creatives like him need practical help to succeed, he founded the Composers Diversity Collective, an organization that connects peers with movie industry gatekeepers.
"Our job is to… go, 'Hey! We're over here. Are you looking to be more inclusive and more diverse when it comes to music? We can fill up your Rolodex in one afternoon,'" he said.
Abels recently donned the gloves, jumpsuit and scissors worn by the characters in "Us" to conduct a choir, performing his "Anthem" from the movie’s soundtrack and once again connecting his African American story to a vital piece of filmmaking.
"It's an honor if people are inspired by your story. It’s a real honor," he said. "If someone can see themselves achieving because of my story? I think that’s great."