Big Problems, Small Joys: The Music of ‘Jaws: The Revenge’
Life is full of unanswered questions – some big, some small, and some whose answers probably only matter to a handful of dedicated genre fans. But the one that keeps me up at night is this: why did respected composer Michael Small of Marathon Man and Klute fame score the notorious disasterpiece that is Jaws: The Revenge?
Unleashed in the summer of 1987, Jaws: The Revenge was Universal’s fourth bite at the cherry after 1983’s Jaws 3-D, which took in less than half of the previous sequel’s domestic gross at the box office. Sid Sheinberg — the studio’s president at the time — thought there was still life in the franchise and took it on himself to pull it out of the mire. He hired Joseph Sargent (The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) to produce and direct, with the lead role going to Sheinberg’s wife, Lorraine Gary aka Ellen Brody.
Jaws: The Revenge famously ignores the events of Jaws 3-D, with Gary’s Ellen moving to the warm waters of the Bahamas to live with older son Michael (Lance Guest) after her younger son Sean is chomped. Despite trying to get over things — most noticeably by distracting herself with Michael Caine’s roguish pilot — Ellen soon learns that the shark that killed Sean has followed her and is hunting her son and granddaughter, setting up an epic conclusion of shark versus grandma.
To say Jaws: The Revenge has a bad reputation is an understatement. And it is a poor film; incoherent at best and incompetent at worst, with a roaring shark that dances on the ocean surface like a 35-foot Fred Astaire and a famously terrible ending the likes of which have not been since Ed Wood. That said, it’s not without merit. Gary gives a decent central performance as the haunted widow of Roy Scheider, and John McPherson‘s cinematography is quite beautiful.
Enter Michael Small, who gained plaudits for his haunting score to Alan J. Pakula’s 1971 thriller Klute. He continued in the same vein with movies such as The Parallax View (1974) and Night Moves (1975) and was subsequently stereotyped as the king of paranoid thrillers, although this was not something that pleased him. Speaking to journalist Tim Grieving, Walter Hill said Small was “disappointed that he seemed to get referred to as ‘a composer on thrillers’ — which I thought kind of trivialized him, in a sense.”
Small never really had a breakout moment like compatriots John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. One wonders what might have happened if he had scored Pakula’s 1976 film All the President’s Men, which won several Oscars. But for reasons unknown to Small, Pakula — who had also worked with the composer on The Parallax View — opted for David Shire instead.
Horror as a genre was not unknown to Small, having already scored the original The Stepford Wives (1975) and the supernatural chiller Audrey Rose (1977). At the time of Jaws: The Revenge, Small had already scored some less than desirable titles, including another Pakula joint in the guise of Dream Lover (1986). For the composer, working on a mainstream franchise film with a bigger budget than any previous picture he worked on may have been an attractive prospect.
It also helps to note that Sheinberg had envisioned Jaws: The Revenge as a “relationship film.” This explains the romance between Gary and Caine and the more dramatic scenes between Gary and Lance Guest. This may be why they hired Small, who had previously scored films such as 1973’s Love and Pain and The Whole Damn Thing and 1978’s Girlfriends. The problem was that the script by Michael de Guzman was dramatically inert, and Sargent’s direction was, surprisingly, similarly uninspiring.
Small’s score works despite the picture and quickly reveals itself as the superior element. Of course, it has to begin with John Williams’ iconic shark theme, and Small scores the opening titles with an aggressive rendition based on an arrangement from the 1975 film’s original soundtrack album, which includes the music where the shark reveals itself to Brody, Quint, and Hooper for the first time. It’s a great choice, as the music has an evocatively nostalgic edge, and it works beautifully as a bridge in the cue.
The shark theme appears several times, but Small also wrote his own theme for the great white: an eerie, almost ghostly motif made up of high synthesiser notes suggesting the shark is haunting the Brody family. This theme sneakily appears when the shark is not on screen but is thematically present, further emphasising the obsessive and unearthly quality. Small also includes a theme for Ellen Brody herself, which is developed from a quiet and reflective piece to a more full-bodied climactic rendition, mirroring her arc from grieving mother to vengeful family protector.
Small’s music works admirably to make the film seem a lot better than it is. His dramatic work is as sharp as ever, and his material for Gary and Caine’s relationship strengthens their scenes, especially when they go for a ride in Caine’s plane, which is scored with excitement and vigour. Small also does the shark attack scenes a huge favour, which is needed as they are one of the main problems with the film — this is a Jaws movie where only two people die (three in the international cut).
For example, the sequence where the shark comes up to attack Michael’s boat feels like a short and fairly intense scene, but it’s all down to Small’s music, with thick driving strings propelling the shark’s vicious onslaught. When you watch it back, you see how it feels so perfunctory; the shots of the shark make it look unbelievably fake, and it produces no thrill or danger. Small is doing all the work.
The same can be said for the film’s big attack scene where the shark goes for Michael’s daughter on a banana boat. Taken on a basic film level, this scene is as exciting as curling, with a weird slow-motion approach that makes it feel like it’s trying to distract you from how badly it’s shot. But Small’s cue is enticing, combining both the Williams shark theme and his own motif, and makes the sequence play a whole lot better than it should.
Unfortunately, Small’s score was a victim of the film’s lack of success. A soundtrack release was planned in 1987 but cancelled due to the poor box office that saw the film barely break even, and being far from the financial juggernaut the earlier films were. However, it did see a release on CD a few years later with a number of unused cues, meaning that you could experience all the excitement of Small’s score without having to sit through the actual film.
Michael Small sadly died in 2003 and was never afforded the hit he deserved. Nevertheless, Jaws: The Revenge illustrates how his score could enhance a film and it proves how diverse a composer he was, as well as providing a tantalising “what if” about if he was allowed to compose for more commercial pictures. In the end, especially when killer sharks are concerned, his work deserves a swift reappraisal.