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  • Stefan Riedlinger

Jaws - John Williams - Soundtrack Review

Another classic John Williams score on my blog. Again, the composer was able to create a theme that people immediately recognize when the orchestra starts playing as you can see in this clip.

The Famous theme

John Williams conducts the Boston Pops, and someone commented totally right: “You know you've made an awesome theme song when only the first note is played, and people instantly figured out what it is.”

The movie

"Jaws" is a 1975 American thriller film directed by Steven Spielberg and based on Peter Benchley's 1974 novel of the same name. In the film, a man-eating great white shark attacks beachgoers at a summer resort town, prompting police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) to hunt it with the help of a marine biologist (Richard Dreyfuss) and a professional shark hunter (Robert Shaw). Murray Hamilton plays the mayor, and Lorraine Gary portrays Brody's wife. The screenplay is credited to Benchley, who wrote the first drafts, and actor-writer Carl Gottlieb, who rewrote the script during principal photography.

There is a joke in the movie world that Alfred Hitchcock with “Psycho” took away the joy of taking a shower, and Spielberg with “Jaws” the joy of swimming. “Jaws” is based on a novel by Peter Benchley. The book tells the story of a big white shark that attacks a small resort town. Three men finally try to kill the fish, and this is the main plot of the story.

The book is based on Benchley's interest in shark attacks after he learned about the exploits of shark fisherman Frank Mundus in 1964. When I was reading the book a few years ago, I was surprised that Benchley wrote parts of the story through the perspective of the shark, so you can read how the fish feels when he is swimming alone through the water, a sometimes astonishing perspective.

Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown, producers at Universal Pictures, heard about the novel and gained interest. "The most exciting thing that we had ever read", they said in an interview. They purchased the movie rights in 1973, before the book's publication, for approximately $175,000. First, veteran director John Sturges was considered, but the young director Steven Spielberg very much wanted the job. Spielberg had just directed his first feature, “The Sugarland Express”, and some people still think this is Spielberg’s best movie. Critics also recognized that “Jaws” is similar to Spielberg’s 1971 television film “Duel”, based on a script by SF legend Richard Matheson.

Universal wanted the shoot to finish by the end of June, when the major studios' contract with the Screen Actors Guild was due to expire, to avoid any disruptions due to a potential strike. Spielberg wanted to stay with the novel’s basic plot and empathized on the shark hunt. Benchley wrote three drafts of the script, and then other writers took over.

It was a suggestion of Spielberg that Brody was afraid of water. Spielberg’s friend Carl Gottlieb, originally hired to bring some comedy aspects in the script, became the main writer in the end. The script for each scene was typically finished the night before it was shot, after Gottlieb had dinner with Spielberg and members of the cast and crew to decide what would go into the film. Many pieces of dialogue originated from the actors' improvisations during these meals, most notably Roy Scheider's line "You're gonna need a bigger boat”:

The whole production of this movie was sometimes a nightmare as you can read in various articles. Here is no time to discuss the production more, so let’s concentrate on the music.

The music

John Williams’s music for “Jaws” ranked as the sixth-greatest score by the American Film Institute. The main "shark" theme, a simple alternating pattern of two notes—variously identified as "E and F" or "F and F sharp" became a classic piece of suspense music, synonymous with approaching danger.

Williams described the theme as "grinding away at you, just as a shark would do, instinctual, relentless, unstoppable." The piece was performed by tuba player Tommy Johnson. When asked why the melody was written in such a high register and not played by the more appropriate French horn, Williams responded that he wanted it to sound "a little more threatening". When Williams first demonstrated his idea to Spielberg, playing just the two notes on a piano, Spielberg was said to have laughed, thinking that it was a joke. Spielberg later said that without Williams's score the film would have been only half as successful.

There is also a lot of influence of classical music in the score, mostly for rapid, percussive string playing as in “La mer” by Claude Debussy or Igor Stravinsky’s “The Ring of Spring”. Here you can listen to “Play Of The Waves” by Debussy:

And now “The Ring Of Spring”. You can hear some similar ways of composing between Stravinsky and Williams, especially in the more atonal passage of the soundtracks, e.g. the action and suspense tracks.

There are different versions of the score available. I have the MCA album, the music consists of 12 tracks. Of course, you should start with the “Main Title” and enjoy the famous motif, played on the tuba, but also balanced by strings, the piano, the brass section and the flute. This track is a musical masterpiece, transforming a jaws attack into music and a true example what amazing movie music should be.

The score has a lot of action tracks such as the first sudden death of Chrissie in “Chrissies Death” (track 2). Track 3 “Promenade” is a more classical piece, and the subtitle “Tourists On The Menu” is a good example of Williams humor. Track 4 “Out To Sea” is a wonderful piece that start the journey to kill the shark.

Track 5 “The Indianapolis story” is a dark and frightening piece before we have “Sea Attack Number one”, a great five minute action piece, now 40 years old but still highly enjoyable. This track shows that the orchestra is far better for film music than a synthesizer. When the music opens up with the string and the bass (there is even a harp in the background!) after 40 seconds, you see the whole size of the shark for the first time on screen, and the music erupts in a triumphant way.

There is still a controversy who deserves the most credit of the famous Indianapolis dialogue scene. Howard Sackler came up with the story of Quint as a survivor of the World War II USS Indianapolis disaster. Spielberg described the ideas as collaboration between Sackler, John Milius, and actor Robert Shaw, who was also a playwright. According to Spielberg, Milius turned Sackler's speech into a monologue, and that was then rewritten by Shaw. Gottlieb gives primary credit to Shaw, downplaying Milius's contribution but that can be also a result of different political views between these two writers.

Track 7 “One Barrel Chase” opens again with the jaws motif, and shows us Robert Shaw’s big surprise that this shark is not a normal shark and can get down with more than two barrel’s attached to him. Spielberg wanted first Lee Marvin, but he did not accept the role, so the producers recommended Robert Shaw, and after seeing the movie, you cannot imagine any other actor playing Quint.

Casting Hooper with Richard Dreyfuss was an idea of George Lucas, and Spielberg worked with Dreyfuss again on “Close Encounters”. Roy Scheider became interested in the project after overhearing Spielberg at a party talk with a screenwriter about having the shark jump up onto a boat, a scene that is really one of the weakest of the movie even though it is the start of Quint’s shocking death. Spielberg was initially apprehensive about hiring Scheider, fearing he would portray a "tough guy", similar to his role in “The French Connection” that made the actor very popular.

Track 8 “Preparing The Cage” shows us the scene when Hooper gets into the cage to kill the shark. In the book, Hooper dies, seeing his own blood, before he dies, in the movie he survives. Track 9 “Night Search” is classical suspense music, greatly written by Williams, and with a shocking musical effect nearly at the end of the track.

Track 10 “The Underwater Siege” underscores the shark attack on the cage, and the next track “Hand To Hand Combat” shows us the final attack of the shark and his end, the musical underscoring of the fight between Brody armed with a rifle and the approaching shark armed with his teeth is marvelous. Nearly perfect is also the music for the dead shark sinking to the ground: Williams uses the piano to underscores the pieces of the shark’s mouth slowly sinking.

“Jaws” was one of the first blockbusters ever; the movie was a huge success and pushed the career of Spielberg and Williams. The sequel had just a few good scenes and, of course, again a nice score by Williams, but the first “Jaws” score will always be remembered as one of John Williams best scores and also one of the best film music scores ever.

Copyright © Stefan Riedlinger, 2015, all rights reserved. The reviews and other textual content contained on the site may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of Stefan Riedlinger.

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