Musings About Music In Film


lead_960 During summer 1975, a concept of movie blockbuster was born. Sure, films before that were successful and iconic, but with the arrival of Steven Spielberg’s third feature film mass hysteria of general public reached new proportions. Given the brilliant marketing campaign and subsequent box office returns, it was something else entirely. The kind of business Hollywood had no idea was possible. For better or worse, this title (along with Star Wars) changed the cinema landscape forever. What’s important to point out, however, is that Jaws was not only a popular phenomenon, but also a truly great film. It gave the audience all the chills and thrills as well as fantastic trio of male characters played by Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss. The escapist cinema at its finest.

As for the music, it’s difficult to review a score like Jaws. Pointless, even. For one, it is one of the most famous film music pieces in cinema history. Second, it is probably John Williams’ single biggest achievement. Three, it’s just impeccable in terms of craft, spotting, composition. And even composer himself, with his enormous and  impressive body of work, had a hard time topping it. Whether he did, it remains up to debate. This work alone would be enough to make him immortal.

And yet, even with its legendary status, general public still thinks it is solely based around the two-note shark ostinato. Yes, that infamous theme forms a backbone for the entire thing and is tremendously important. But there is so much more to it. Jaws is full of other themes - shark fugue, Orca, Quint, chase music. And they all get their moments to shine.  Originally, composer’s intention was to treat the story as a swashbuckling adventure and indeed two of the scores wonderful setpieces (‘Man Against Beast’ and ‘Great Chase’) could be easily placed in a pirate film. There is a comedic scherzo (‘Montage’), heartfelt elegy (‘Jaws - End Title’), a touching and intimate moments of family bonding (‘Father and Son’). It’s rich and full-bodied, and John Williams makes wonderful use of every single orchestra section. Particular mention should go to the wonderful woodwind solos and mysterious harp performances that provide the music with incredibly unique atmosphere and mood.

The original film recording of Jaws was never perfect to begin with and that is probably why original tracks remained unreleased for so long. The original 1975 soundtrack album was actually a completely different recording, made exclusively for MCA Records release. And while a fantastic album of its own, it's not "the thing". For the film's’ 25th anniversary in 2000 a brand new film mix was prepared in 5.1 format. While probably genuine in its intentions, this version never managed to capture the rawness and brutal power of 1975 mono. In any case, that served as a basis for the first actual album release of film recording of Williams’ music. Thus, the infamous Decca Records album came to be and it was heavily criticised for its disappointing sound. Around the same time, Varese Sarabande released a re-recording made by Joel McNeely and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. It was an enjoyable disc, even if the wet concert hall acoustics drastically differed from much drier and rougher original. Long story short, purists were not happy with this one either.

Mike Matessino was honoured (and burdened!) with an enormous task of restoring Jaws for the new Intrada release. He made an interesting decision of placing the shark, as represented by the lowest registers of the orchestra, at the very center of his mix. It forms a steady dark beating heart of Jaws and all the other elements dance around it. By doing this, he managed to both preserve the spirit of original mono mix and make a satisfying sonic presentation for modern listeners. True, it might sound a bit unorthodox, given how orchestral ensemble would normally be presented, but it’s incredibly effective in this particular context.

To round off the already excellent film version of the complete score, we get to hear some things for the very first time on this new Intrada release. ‘Shark Tows Orca’ is a short suspenseful cue that makes its world premiere on the album, given that it was present neither on any presentation prior to this one nor in the film itself. We also get to hear the infamous typewriter chord, although curiously placed in the bonus section. A somewhat differently orchestrated ‘Man Against Beast’ makes for an interesting comparison study, as does ‘Great Chase’. The second disc offers us the award-winning original album as well as wealth of nice, if somewhat unnecessary, selection of source music material.

It’s funny that one of the most famous film scores in history would need to wait an entire 40 years for a proper soundtrack treatment. Intrada finishes off its Jaws marathon (in reversed order) with a true milestone of a release. Mike Matessino once again proves that he’s the best in this business and may his work on restoring John Williams’ legacy continue for many years to come. Finally, we get to experience this masterpiece as intended. The two alternate recordings from MCA and Varese can now be treated as curious additions, rather than essentials, and the 2000 Decca album can fade into oblivion. An essential to have and the only Jaws album you'll ever need.

-Karol Krok

Jaws is out now from Intrada Records