Jaws of Life: SF Symphony Makes a 1975 Horror Film Terrifying

John Williams' score is scarier live, but the tender moments shine through better as well.

Roy Scheider in Jaws. (SF Symphony)

When I was a little kid, just thinking of the two-note intro to John Williams’ theme was enough to make me want to jump out of the bathtub, let alone the murky waves of the Pacific that I frolicked in down at the beach in Santa Cruz.

Modern teenage movie-goers may flock to the latest cheaply made found-footage drek or internet-based urban legend in search of some cinematic terror, but as old-school horror buffs know, it’s what you don’t see that really scares the hell out of you — and Steven Spielberg made the most of that with his 1975 masterpiece, where the music plays a huge role in letting viewers know where the monster is lurking.

As part of its excellent ongoing film-and-music series, the San Francisco Symphony performed the Jaws score live along with a screening of the film, undoubtedly making people afraid to go into the water after a show at Davies Symphony Hall.

Drinking cocktails like an “Off-Duty Lifeguard,” “The Orca,” or “The Shark Bite,” some patrons wore T-shirts bearing the image of the movie’s iconic poster, while one woman even wore a fuzzy shark-pajama onesie. (I went with a tie adorned with the poster art that my dad bought back in the ’70s.) You could also pose for a pic upstairs in front of a shark-mouth prop, hanging over over the teeth like Robert Shaw’s unfortunate character, Quint, at the end of the film.

Steven Spielberg’s first blockbuster is one of the foremost examples of the importance of music in a film. The leitmotif establishing the shark’s presence — which, while it owes a debt to The Creature From The Black Lagoon, made 20 years before — set the bar for generations to come.

As the opening credits rolled across the screen and the familiar intro began, the audience cheered wildly as the first victim met her demise. The reaction was the same every time the theme repeated. More surprising, however, were the quieter, more subdued passages that a live performance gives greater poignancy to, such as the scene where Amity Island Chief of Police Brody (Roy Scheider) sits at the dinner table with his young son, and they emulate each other’s gestures.

Even though I’ve seen the movie dozens of times, I hadn’t fully noticed the gentle plucking of the strings on the harp that accompanied the scene. Seen live, I was drawn to the harpist and not to the screen.

The same could be said for the scene in which Shaw commands such attention while delivering his monologue about the USS Indianapolis. The score gave the talk an added feeling of gravitas, while staying in the background, just below the surface — akin to the shark itself.

The Symphony continues its series of film concerts again later this year and next spring with North By Northwest (Dec. 1-2), West Side Story (Feb. 1-3), and Batman (April 4-5), among others.

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