Essential Soundtracks looks at the soundtrack album itself and picks the best examples around, regardless of format.
By Charlie Brigden
While he’d already won one Oscar and had been scoring films for quite a while, Jaws was the film that broke John Williams’ career. Spielberg’s film is still a masterpiece of tension, almost unparalleled, with a deft hand that transforms the film from nail-biting terror to unbridled adventure. It stands up there with The Exorcist as an example of Hollywood horror that can not only keep up with the rest of them, but overtake as well.
And yes, so much of it is due to Williams’ score. But beyond those two notes that act for the mechanical shark that kept breaking down, those two notes that saved the picture, it’s a score that is just like its antagonist – a machine that acts with unerring precision to evoke fear, laughter, and exhilaration. It has a selection of brilliant themes typical of Williams and the kind of scores that would define his career, and is a blast the whole way through – both in the film and on record, CD, or whatever.
Aside from the infinite compilation albums that feature material from the film – usually a suite of the main theme – there have been three specific records that have featured the music of Jaws. In 2000 for the film’s twenty-fifth anniversary two albums surfaced on compact disc that featured the complete score for the film. Varese Sarabande continued their rich legacy of representing classic film music by recording the score with Joel McNeely leading the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, while Decca Records issued the actual recordings from the film, albeit in a strange non-chronological order. But the best listening experience was also the first.
Like many other soundtracks around the time, the 1975 album was a re-recording. Rather than just present the cues from the film – something that could potentially be jarring, especially from a horror score – he presented the score more as a long suite, with certain cues rearranged to fit a more pleasing listen. The album also did not present the tracks in strict chronological order, instead arranging them to benefit the structure of the record rather than the film. What followed was an example of a soundtrack master at work, presenting a lean program (running thirty-six minutes) with the perfect balance of suspense, horror, and adventure.
The album of course begins with the main theme. A slightly modified arrangement from what opened the film, the track continues past the moment in the film where it cuts to the beach scene with diagetic music, instead segueing to material from the later cat and mouse chase between the boat and the shark. This new segment features a more violent rendition of the shark theme, together with the shanty-esque Orca theme. Interestingly this would eventually make it onto film via composer Michael Small, who adapted it for his score to 1987’s Jaws The Revenge.
The album mirrors the film for the following track, ‘Chrissie’s Death’, before lightening the mood with the fun and jaunty ‘Promenade (Tourists On The Menu)’, which takes the music scored for the ferry montage in the film and expands it, with some beautiful woodwind and string work. This more upbeat mood is extended with ‘Out To Sea’, which allows for more of the wonderful wind orchestration in the score and works as preparation for the darker tones that immediately follow. ‘The Indianapolis Story’ is one of the most evocative cues from the score, musically describing the tale of Quint’s ordeal aboard the infamous USS Indianapolis. It’s not a short track, so the listener is subjected to quite a bit of slow-grinding tension before being given a slight release.
That is, until they’re plunged into ‘Sea Attack Number One’, a track that immediately moves the album up a gear with the reintroduction of the shark theme in a more intense fashion, together with the action-orientated “Work Montage” (as it’s called on the original cue sheet). The track runs over five minutes and is almost wall-to-wall terror and thrills before it ends on a more somber – but no less tense – note. One mention on this has to go to the brilliant harp at the end, combined with the flute to create a sense of desperation and reflection. This is almost instantly communted by ‘One Barrel Chase’ which begins with the shark theme before moving upwards with the brilliant swashbuckling music Williams composed for the boat chase sequences.
It’s a great interlude to bring the mood up, and gives a sense of flair that continues – admittedly in a more serious vein – in the great ‘The Shark Cage Fugue’, that brilliant driving motif that gives a real sense of determination and locomotion as the film nears its climax. Which means it’s the perfect place to slow the album down, bringing in the atmospheric ‘Night Search’. Called ‘Ben Gardner’s Boat’ originally and scoring the scene where Brody and Hooper find the fisherman’s boat, it’s always been my favourite piece of music from the score and is an amazing example of how Jaws is so much more than just that theme.
After that, we’re hit – literally – with fear and dread with ‘The Underwater Siege’, a great cue that uses rising strings to illustrate the shark attacking the cage. Again we hear swirling harp alongside strings before the secondary part of the shark theme, and it reaches the pit of our stomach. But it’s nearly over, and as we go into ‘Hand To Hand Combat’ we’re immediately subjected to an amazing cluster of brass that segues quickly to frenzied strings and brass in a slight contraction of the film cue. We hear that great descending motif before the shark theme returns, in counterpoint with the work theme, steadily rising with virtuoso brass until it reaches that crescendo as the shark explodes. Harp returns again, this time in a dreamy fashion as the shark’s corpse sinks to the bottom, and we’re safe from harm.
The album finishes on a gentle note with a beautiful rendition of the Orca theme for the end titles. It’s the exit, and the way the record – and the film – plays out gives us a wonderfully calm and serene feeling, in contrast to the intensity of what we’ve previously experienced. It’s amazing that the album actually runs over half an hour, as it feels like ten minutes. Such is the wonder not only of Williams’ writing in general, but also the album’s sequencing. It’s really a miracle of evolution.
The original soundtrack to Jaws was released by MCA Records on LP and 8-track tape, with a further CD release in 1992, while a quadraphonic edition of the LP was released in 1975 in Japan only. Requests are consistently made for it to be remastered with today’s technology, and it’s quite a surprise that a two-disc edition of the score has not yet surfaced, with the original album on one disc and a remaster of the unimpressively flat original tracks from the Decca album.
That said, the album is available cheap on CD – it’s currently on Amazon’s used store for sixty-six cents – and even the LP is relatively easy to come by. Given the resurgence of vinyl, you’d hope it’s only a matter of time before an enterprising label reissues it. One can only hope.