Music and Film: Jaws (1975)

An opaque dorsal fin slices through the water. Camera-point-of-view on a young man splashing in the distance. The fin submerges. The sound track cranks up a notch: Dum- Dum – Dum – Dum – Dum – Dum..! Bubbles, white foam, glimpses of something large and foreboding thrashing in the waves. The music increases in its intensity: Dum-Dum-Dum-Dum-Dum-Dum-Dum..!  A red mist of blood that fogs the water. The audience in the movie theatre screams hysterically. A severed limb floats lazily to the ocean floor below. The music trails off. Dun-Dun-Dun-Dun-Dun-Dun.

There have only been a handful of movies produced which contain a soundtrack that is not only instantly recognizable, but where the music also plays such an integral part in the film itself. Jaws (1975) is such a film. The movie successfully tapped into several human fears of the unknown and translated these phobias into a highly entertaining film that doesn’t talk down to its audience, nor uses violence gratuitously to get its point across.

Commented Director Steven Spielberg:

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I have a lot of anxiety, and my main anxiety stems from not being able to see my feet when I’m treading water. And what’s down there with me, and who’s nibbling on my toes. And I know how to express my fear cinematically. I’ve always been good at that, and I thought when “Jaws” came along, well, I  already have a tremendous fear of the ocean, and certainly a fear of sharks, and so I went to [producers] Dick Zanuck and David Brown and volunteered myself to direct the adaptation from the Benchley book…”  (Excerpts from Steven Spielberg Interview)

Composer John Williams — while no stranger to sound tracks for television and film (he’d already won an Oscar as music producer in 1971 for Fiddler on the Roof) — was just beginning to hit his stride on a musical odyssey that would see his movie soundtracks crack the Billboard music charts and sells millions. Almost unheard of for instrumental compositions, let alone for movie soundtracks.

Williams saw something unique in the Spielberg rough-cut. He viewed the film as more of an adventure and less as a traditional horror film. Recalled Williams in a conversation with film producer Laurent Bouzereau:  “…This is like a pirate movie! I think we need pirate music for this, because there’s something primal about it — but it’s also fun and entertaining…” ( Lindahl, pg1 )

As the legend goes, Williams was previewing proposed music for the film on his piano, playing the basic structure for Spielberg and Bousereau and hammering out the now famous bars of impending doom on his piano keys. Spielberg thought Williams was kidding. “dum, dum, dum-dum, dum-dum, dum-dum”  The rest as they say, is history:

At first I began to laugh, and I thought, “John has a great sense of humor!” But he was  serious — that was the theme for Jaws. So he  played it again and again, and suddenly it seemed right. Sometimes the best ideas are  the most simple ones and John had found a signature for the entire score…” ( Lindahl, pg 1)

Let it be said that the music in Jaws is effective because it’s not over used. By playing the Jaws theme only to foreshadow the presence of the shark, the music is much more effective. Several examples of this stand out. The music played in the scenes of families playing at the beach have an almost home town flavor to them. The music when the boats are setting out to capture the shark have a classical feel and one scene in particular – of a child playing in the water with a fake shark fin – has no music at all. Collectively, this contrast in musical styles plays to the audience’s advantage. They know in short order when they do hear the jaws theme that there’s no mistaking the fact that the shark is going to make an appearance.

What is it about the movie Jaws and its music that sets it apart from so many other adventure and suspense films? Oddly enough, prior to the film’s premier there wasn’t a “genre’ for this type of film. Horror and suspense were considered “Category B or C”.

In fact, after Jaws cracked 100 million dollars during its North American Box Office the genre of monster/animal/villain stalking its prey was firmly in place. Whose to say there’s not a little bit of Jaws in every film ranging from Rambo to Halloween? Certainly there are variations of John Williams film score in the above mentioned film and more.

Stephen Spielberg has gone on record as saying that Jaws wouldn’t have been nearly as successful if it didn’t have the music it did. Plainly put, the music works. Would any other type of soundtrack so indelibly stamp an image on the subconscious of the audience? Highly doubtful. The by-now famous “…dum, dum, dum-dum, dum-dum, dum-dum… “  creates an instant visual. But also serves as a metaphor for the shark’s excitement when it approaches its prey or when it approaches the boat of Robert Shaw.

Critics can say what they will regarding John Williams score for Jaws. As a “piece of music” it is not the kind of score that allows for listening while lying down on the coach for example. It is music that conjures up images. There are several suites — if the term can be freely used – that showcase Williams versatility as a scorer of music and as a producer who knows how to grab his audience by the collar.

When it comes to music that creates a sense of suspense and hysteria the loaded “Shark Cage Fugue” bears listening to more than once. Similar treatment is due “The Great Shark Chase” and the nearly five minutes long “Man Against Beast”, where renditions of the familiar theme appears and disappears, interwoven with the theme associated with the actual shark hunting.

However, Williams’ use of Quint’s “sailor song” as a recurring theme is used to great effect as a vehicle to mark the captain’s inner resolution and character. He sings it when he is in a good mood, or when he needs to conjure up his muse: “…Farewell and a-do to you fair Spanish ladies, farewell and a-do to you ladies in Spain…”  Williams interweaves this ditty at crucial parts of the film. Most notably when his ship “The Orca” is floundering and ready to sink. The shark is waiting “out there” somewhere and Quint is running out of luck. The music again — in this case not even the theme — is used to great effect.

On a more technical note, it would be impossible to discuss the impact of the Jaws soundtrack on the film, without exploring how the music itself was packaged and made available to the public as a marketing tool. Andrew Drannon provides a valuable perspective on the issued soundtrack for Jaws, as well as an astute track by track breakdown of the music on it’s latest re-issue. Drannon mentions that the original Jaws score exists in three recordings: The original LP and a 1992 CD re-issue feature about half an hour of music that Williams rearranged and re-recorded for the sole purposes of the album, and this was for a long time the only available music from the picture. Drannon delves further into the music, saying:

“…Film score collectors have been historically   quite adamant in their demands for complete releases of soundtracks, namely for the scores of John Williams, which so often leave out highlights of the music and place them into confusing suites. To some, this may seem a bit unneeded, due to the fact that the original 35-minute LP album featured a great majority of the score, with a few of the shorter cues actually expanded into suites.

Still, for the 25th anniversary of the film, Decca saw fit to rescue the entire musical work, minus the album expansions for a 51-minute CD release. Fans will be elated due to the inclusion of almost 30 minutes of new material, including fantastic cues not used in the film, which make up for the loss of the infamous original album developments…” (Andrew Drannon pg 1)

The final re-issue presents the jaws soundtrack into a more cohesive listening experience.

Years after the film made its debut in theatres, after countless showings on television, after a Jaws Fest even, the music ha become an institution. There have been only a handful of films where the music has much such an impact: the James Bond franchise, Enrico Morricone with “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and possibly the Indiana Jones series. But none make the blood curl, create a knot in one’s stomach and send a chill up the spine like John Williams soundtrack for the original summer blockbuster, Jaws.

References:

Spielberg, Steven. Interview excerpts, Jaws 30th Anniversary Special Edition

DVD linear notes, 2005

Lindahl, Andreas. Scoreviews.Com. Internet article. pg 1 1998

Ibid. pg 1

Drannon, Andrew. Decca Music Group Sound Tracks Review: Jaws 25th Anniversary Edition. Internet article. pg 1. 2000

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