Music in the Movies – Scores

Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg)

Old Stevie has said that if Jaws had been released without its John Williams score, the film would only have come back with half the preposterous amount of dosh it reeled in at the global box office. He may be underestimating. The film and its aquatic antagonist are unimaginable without those accompanying strains of dread.

Famously, the mechanical shark didn’t work very well. But this ended up being a blessing to creativity. We never see the great white in the blow-your-bollocks-off-brilliant opening sequence (when a lithe young woman becomes a late evening snack) but we do see through its eyes as it cruises through the ocean to the best monster theme ever.

According to those in the know, John Williams was somewhat ‘influenced’ by Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Dvorak’s New World Symphony when he wrote this score. Try having a listen – even to a musical illiterate like myself the similarities are striking. Of course, this does not mean the Williams work should be regarded as simply a rip-off. All art is the product of something that came before, and the line between being influenced by another work and full-blown plagiarism is always drawn arbitrarily.

Jaws is not an isolated example of the enormous impact a score can have on a film. So often (and possibly without our full acknowledgement as viewers) those films that live on in our heads, gatecrashing our daydreams, exert their power primarily through their musical accompaniment. A few years ago I sat in the Shaftesbury Avenue Odeon laughing with happiness at the sensory stimulation of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive; it was like getting drunk on pure cinema. I loved every shot, every cut, every casting choice…but most of all, I loved the music. That 80s-inflected electronic score that seemed to be playing in The Driver’s head. And was still playing in mine weeks later. I’m yet to own a copy of the movie, but I do own the soundtrack. (I may or may not have listened to it while cruising the streets of Hemel Hempstead in a Vauxhall Corsa.)

Further reading:

Jaws BFI Modern Classics by Antonia Quirke (2002, BFI Publishing)

The Jaws Log: Expanded Edition by Carl Gottlieb (2012, Dey Street Books)

Sam Bowles



Five films to enjoy while the sun’s around:

Dirty Dancing (1987, Emile Ardolino)

1963. A 17-year-old girl, while on holiday with her family in the Catskills, learns how to dance to professional standard in about 2 days. Then gets jiggy with Patrick Swayze.

I know, I know. Why is a man in his 30s drawing attention to a film that’s been precision-engineered to appeal to teenage girls? Because, if you can get past your prejudices, it works like a motherfucker. I think about Dirty Dancing all the time.

Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee)

Racial tensions explode over a single summer’s day in Brooklyn. To the sound of Public Enemy.

Surely the hottest film ever. (And I’m not talking about Rosie Perez in a vest top.)

My Neighbour Totoro (1988, Hayao Miyazaki)

Two children and their father move to a new house in the countryside, while their mum is ill in hospital. They discover some big-time magic is going on in the natural world.

Miyazaki’s masterpiece. Proof that a story doesn’t require an antagonist. The precise observations about the ways in which children interact with their environment are unparalleled. (Nb. Please, if you have the option, watch this film in the original Japanese with subtitles. It’s not pretentious; it’s just better.)

Rear Window (1954, Alfred Hitchcock)

A photographer with a broken leg spies sinister goings-on out of his flat window.

It’s funny. It’s cool. It’ll make you wish one of your neighbours would commit murder. I’m still waiting for one of the bastards near me to come through…

A Scene at the Sea (1991, Takeshi Kitano)

A hearing-impaired man learns to surf. And that’s it.

Kitano’s reliably idiosyncratic staging, camera style and sense of humour are wedded to a stronger emotional hook than usual. The storytelling is so visual, you could turn off the subtitles. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Sam Bowles