BC's Soundtrack Reviews #6: JAWS and Lord of Illusions
by, 01-13-2012 at 12:35 PM (7504 Views)
JAWS - John Williams (1975)
Available at Screen Archives
PSYCHO! It's perhaps the only piece of film music ingrained into the minds of pop culture the likes of JAWS. Whether or not you've ever snuck up on your girlfriend in the shower with a knife and imitated the high pitch shrieks is debatable. What's not debatable is at some point or another, you've definitely been in the ocean, a pool or a bath tub, used your hand to emulate a dorsal fin and sang the "da-duh, da-duh" theme from JAWS. Everybody has. It's branded into our minds. It's in the opening of 'Airplane!.' It was in 'One Crazy Summer.'
The sports radio show I listen to uses it to kick off their "winer line." The impact JAWS has had on pop culture (not to mention what it did to people's love of the water) can't be measured and yet seems as though it's just another walk in the park for Spielberg and Williams. Looking back on this director/composer tandem is stunning and seems otherworldly. With blockbusters like E.T., Superman, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, Close Encounters and Superman to their credit, these Hollywood Titans are responsible for a good portion of the most successful films of the past 40 years. They gave us our fondest childhood moments, created our favorite childhood toys and composed some of our favorite themes of all time. But like all things great, they had to start somewhere and that starting point was JAWS. Well...technically 'Sugarland Express,' but we'll get to that. *
Throughout the 1960's, John Williams was a session musician and orchestrator in the Hollywood scene. Going by the name "Johnny Williams," he would orchestrate for Hollywood heavyweights Franz Waxman, Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Newman and play piano in the orchestra on scores for Jerry Goldsmith, Henry Mancini and Elmer Bernstein. He was a budding composer in his own right however and began scoring t.v. episodes for 'Lost in Space' and most of his film work to that time consisted of jazz scores for romantic comedies.
His work garnered him a couple Oscar bids, but it wasn't until 1973 that he won his first Oscar for his score adaptation to 'Fiddler on the Roof.' What followed was a string of disaster films including 'The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno' and 'Earthquake.' By 1974, John Williams was officially a rising star and a promising director by the name of Steven Spielberg was also turning heads. A devout soundtrack collector himself, Spielberg had always been a fan of Williams' work and approached him to score his directorial debut 'The Sugarland Express,' which would mark the beginning of a 38 year collaboration that is still going today. Though it was only their second collaboration, some still consider JAWS to be their benchmark work as it shattered all box office records to that time and almost 40 years later, still holds up.*
Williams said when he approached the score to JAWS, that he thought of the shark and what it was. It was mindless, relentless and came from the depths. To achieve mindless, he kept his theme to two notes on the piano. To pull off the relentless bit, he had the two note ostinato repeat over and over. Lurking in the depths just meant that it was played low on the piano. The concept seems comically simple, but it's hard to find another theme with such impact. Admittedly, Spielberg and Williams didn't know if the theme would work with audiences.
In fact, Spielberg actually laughed the first time he heard it and thought Williams was joking. The theme would not only strike fear in the moviegoer, but most importantly it transcended the visual medium and became an actual character in the film on par with Quint, Brody and Hooper. The pain and strife it took to film JAWS has been well documented and due to the mechanical shark never working, this meant the filmmakers would have to find alternate ways to represent the shark. They enlisted a group of filmmakers to record live shots of Great White's off the coast of Australia that they could cut into the film; they used the yellow barrels to signify the shark's presence and John Williams' two note pattern. The audience couldn't see the shark, but the "da-duh, da-duh" let them know it was there.
Besides JAWS' obvious main theme, the score is magnificent all around. Williams makes use of the entire orchestra with thundering trombones and timpani during shark attacks, while adventurous trumpets and strings soar over scenes of the three main hunters going after the shark. He even employs a harpsichord over a classically influenced montage of beach goers and a day in Amity Island. Sweeping glissandos on harp are present as the shark passes the boat for the first time, during the estuary shark attack and in the shark's final moments when it explodes and sinks to the depths. Lurking, suspenseful, adventurous, elegant...JAWS' score has something for everybody, which is probably why it landed Williams' his second Academy Award.
Williams would go on to win his third two years later for his score to 'Star Wars: A New Hope,' launching him into the stratosphere of film composers, but the string of hits that started with JAWS also meant a comeback for the symphonic score. Throughout most of the 60's and 70's, orchestral scores had been replaced by jazz and funk scores. Williams would bring back the big orchestra of Golden Hollywood and make it a mainstay for decades to come.
The score to JAWS has seemingly been released about a thousand times between LP and CD. LP records of the score still hold their value because it's just a cool piece to have in any horror collection. Most notable CD releases are from MCA, Varese Sarabande and most recently DECCA records' Anniversary Collector's Edition (289 467 045-2). It contains 20 tracks, 12 which had never been released before and the artwork is gorgeous.
Most releases don't have much for liner notes however, making information on this score a bit tough to come by. Sadly also is that the tracks are out of film order. Why can't these larger companies get it right??? You can pick it up off eBay if you're too lazy to look around for about $12-$15 used. To pick up a copy, hit eBay or check out Screen Archives. (5/5 B.C.)
Lord of Illusions (Simon Boswell - 1995)
Available at Perseverance Records
Considering I wasn't a die hard 'Hellraiser' fan like my KR brethren, I wasn't sure if I would enjoy 'Lord of Illusions.' Learning also that is was shot with a film noir style, my second thought was that I definitely wouldn't enjoy it. Surprisingly however, I enjoyed this movie....for the most part. A different kind of story line you don't see every day mixed with Famke Jannsen made for just the right amount of entertainment.
For Clive Barker's thriller, a curious combination of supernatural horror with film noir meant that a certain style of music had to be used for the film. Having used Danny Elfman (Batman, Beetlejuice) and Christopher Young (Freddy's Revenge, Hellraiser, The Fly II) on past films; Barker approached Young about composing the score, but Young's hectic schedule prevented it. Illusions' producer JoAnne Sellar recommended genre composer Simon Boswell (Demons 2, Shallow Grave), which prompted a meeting in Los Angeles. After listening to a couple demos, Barker knew Boswell was right for the job so Boswell moved to L.A. for the duration of post production.
Instead of seeing a final film and scoring to that, Boswell wrote the Illusions score to an unfinished cut of the film; knowing it would have several changes ahead. Music editor Paul Rabjohns then took elements of Boswell's score and cut them together to fit the action in the final cut later on. The freedom with which the composer worked, meant that he also had freedom to write some very unusual cues for the orchestra. On some cues, Boswell would give sections of the orchestra parts that were playable at first, but impossible to play eventually and that would force the orchestra to improvise. Boswell hoped to achieve musical chaos with these cues and bring a unique sound to the film.
The score itself seems to have two very distinct feels. One feel is the dark, gothic nature of the score usually found during the seances, resurrections and supernatural scenes with Nix. For these segments, Boswell takes a somewhat subdued approach and goes for atmosphere over mirroring the actors' actions. Chants and vibrato calls from male voices create a voo-doo like feel while long string passages mixed with gothic male vocals against heartbeat timpani ala Elfman's 'Batman' set an heir of mystery over these scenes.
Barker's long winded scenes translate to some long winded passages and these portions of the score are very appropriate and effective for the film, but can be bit of a snoozer on their own in my opinion. Still, Boswell manages to get some very unique, rich sounds from the orchestra. The second half of the score addresses the action sequences and noir aspects of the film and this is where Boswell shines. Harry's theme consists of a bluesy saxophone solo over unusual chords to create a mysteriously romantic theme; the highlight of the score in my opinion. Boswell would later present this theme with different orchestration in the love scene. This is the theme Boswell presented to Barker, which ultimately landed him the gig and the inspiration shows in the piece. Overall, a hauntingly gothic score with rich sounds, just a tad uninspired sounding.
As far as owning this score, Mute Records originally released the score, but Perseverance Records recently came out with a definitive version. Perseverance has impressed me all along, but this set may be the most impressive yet. Released last year, it's a two disc, 51 track set that features Boswell's complete score as well as demos and bonus tracks totaling close to 2 1/2 hours of music. Definitive is putting it lightly. The sound quality is crystal clear and the tracks are in film order. Thank God! The booklet is 20 pages long with informative liner notes, photos and illustrated design concepts from the film.
The design of the booklet is splendid with stunning colors and imagery created by a designer who thankfully understands resolutions so the images aren't blurry...a sad oversight in many soundtrack booklets. I feel like I say this every time, but kudos to Perseverance once again. These guys understand soundtrack collecting and you have to respect and admire the heart they put into everything they put out. To pick up Illusions and more scores like 'The Exorcist II: The Heretic, Animals United' and 'Dr. Phibes Rises Again,' go to Perseverance Records. (3/5 B.C.)