The terrifying motion picture from the terrifying No. 1 best seller.

Jaws premiered 35 years ago today, and the internet’s abuzz about it. Plenty of articles, blog posts and e-partying, which I think is really great. Turns out there are many of us out there who call it My Favorite Film. It’s a nice community to be in. (I’ve included a few links below.)

This film is a part of me on a molecular level1, and I’ve already done two posts on it (Before and After and The Many Faces of…). I have many more Jaws-related posts in me, however, I fear they’ll all quickly devolve into bitching about the bad sound mix done in 2000 (see my Before and After post if you don’t believe me). But I don’t want that kind of anger to taint this wonderful anniversary.

Tell you what: my post today will be predominantly about a great moment within Jaws—and towards the end of the post, maybe I’ll grumble a little about what it sounds like in the theaters today.

OK, here’s the scene, which I’ll call the Whale Song scene: Brody, Hooper and Quint are on the Orca, and Quint’s just finished his Indianapolis story. The mood is as quiet as the film will ever get—on the Orca at least—and the silence is interrupted by the sound of a whale in the distance. Naturally, this freaks out Brody, land-lubber that he is. Pay attention to the whale’s interaction with the others…

This is as beautiful as it gets. Gentle, haunting. Let’s break it down, since I think it gets even better under scrutiny:

       -Quint’s story ends. The guys are humbled by his tale. All of us (Brody, Hooper and the audience) have a better understanding of what drives this shark hunter.
       -The whale cries; Brody reacts; Hooper explains, “It’s a whale.”
       -Quint sings with a small smile, “Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish lady…”
       -The whale cries again.
       -Quint joins the whale, continuing, “Farewell and adieu, you ladies of Spain…”
       -The whale cries the last time.
       -Hooper picks up as soon as the whale is done: “Show me the way to go home…”

In a nutshell, Quint duets with the whale, making his spiritual kinship with the sea even more pronounced than his Indianapolis story did. In fact, you could say that, yes, he’s got issues with sharks but not with the ocean. It’s obvious this is a man who plans to die at sea.

And the fact that Hooper follows his lead—singing a song that asks for “the way home”—could be seen as foreshadowing Quint’s ultimate demise2   a couple of reels later. (Tellingly, in the first version of the script to include the singing, it’s Quint who begins “Show Me the Way to Go Home.”)

I don’t normally read this much into films, but Jaws is so chock full of subtleties, nuances, and idiosyncrasies I’m inclined to think everything is there for a reason. By all accounts—Carl Gottlieb’s The Jaws Log; Laurent Bouzereau’s excellent “The Making of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws”; comparing the few drafts of the screenplay floating around the internet against the end result—this was by-the-seat-of-their-pants filmmaking, with re-writing and improvisation happening at every turn—and yet the young director had a vision and a clear focus on the characters’ purpose within the scheme of the story. Therefore, it’s very likely (to me) that Spielberg directed Robert Shaw to imagine he was singing with the whale.

It bears another viewing…

Of course, a sound effect this distinct prompts questions from an old sound editor like myself: Who picked the actual sound? Who placed it in the film, timing it the way it is? I wouldn’t be surprised if it were Spielberg, perhaps even choosing it prior to shooting. At the very least, a sound effect this important would have been settled upon in the editing room, with input from editor Verna Fields. I can’t imagine the film going through the entire picture edit without any whale sound there, waiting for a sound editor to dig up something appropriate. It’s just too important a sound effect.

But I do have an idea what the scene would sound like without that whale sound. As I wrote in my first post, Jaws was originally mixed in mono (for which it won an Oscar), and when it came out on DVD in 2000, it was remixed for surround sound. Yet for some still-unknown reason, many of the film’s juiciest sound effects were either missing or replaced by something noticeably different or inferior. Sadly, the Whale Song scene, one of my favorite sounding scenes in the film, has been decimated…

I know I said I wasn’t going to bitch too much in this post, but here goes:

       1. The interplay between the whale and Quint and Hooper is gone. Instead, the whale now cries the same time as Quint, which leaves those pockets of silence wide open. The average ear, hearing a film for the first time, is trained to listen to the characters, and any sound placed beneath them will be a distraction. When I used to sound edit, we had a basic rule: it was OK to have sound FX/design wedged in between lines of dialog. (Joe Sixpack, when hearing a sound effect snuck in between some dialog, isn’t going to say, “Hey, they stuck that sound in there because nothing else was going on!” Trust me on that.)
       2. This new whale sound is creepy and happy at the same time—but definitely not mournful in the way the original is. It also sounds like the whale was miked closely when it was recorded and it still sounds that way. Gone is the feeling of distant crying.
       3. Where are all those great boat creaks and groans?! Now the scene sounds like it was filmed on a soundstage (it wasn’t). Check this out. This short clip begins with the new mix and then crosses over into the original, personality-filled mix. (You may have to crank this up for full effect.)

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why any of this was done. But I do know this: if Jaws ever gets its long-overdue theatrical re-release, it will have this anemic mix—and that’s a shame.

But, hey! Enough of my old man grumblin’! Back to the celebratin’!

I’m going to leave you with a couple of gifts. First, here’s those links to some very interesting Jaws-related blogs and articles:
       –Radiation-Scarred Reviews has been doing a week-long Sharkathalon, which includes posts about shark films before and after Jaws as well as links to other blogs posting about the film.
       –Too Much Horror Fiction has some great samples of Jaws in print; and its sister blog Panic on the 4th of July has equally exciting examples of Jaws posters.
       –Hunting Bruce, or, on the Trail of the Jaws Shark, an NPR piece about a journalist fulfilling a life-long dream of literally touching the mechanical shark

And lastly, a song. The song. And this might be the version the guys were referencing:

The Andrews Sisters – Show Me the Way to Go Home (2:49, right-click to download)

I suggest you crank it up, grab a friend or two, and sing along.


BACK TO POST 1 Obviously, Jaws is the Big Mac Daddy of Quotable Films. Oh, sure, there’s “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” and “Back home we got a taxidermy man–He’s gonna have a heart attack when he sees what I brung him!” Y’know, the quotes we hear peppering our everyday lives. But I’m talking about a deeper layer, like “(inhale).” That’s when Brody gets out of bed, inhaling and standing up straight, which is how I’ve gotten out of bed most days of my life. Or this old chestnut: “(sniff).” Of course, I’m referring to Brody walking down the street of Amity, sniffing sharply then looking up at the birds. I do that one every Fall day.

BACK TO POST 2 Or is it “demeeze”?


Filed under Film, Gripes

13 responses to “The terrifying motion picture from the terrifying No. 1 best seller.

  1. *Beautiful* post, man. And thanks for the links. I like the explication of the sound effects, depressing though they may be. I saw Jaws in the theater last year on a retro bill but have no idea which version of the “whale song” was included. And yes, any time someone mentions Quint’s death, I think of “demeeze”!

    • As far as which sound mix you heard, here’s an easy barometer: if the print looked old and beaten up, it was probably the original. If the print was gorgeous, odds are it was the new mix. I saw it in Queens about 10 years ago and the print was beaten all to shit–and it sounded great. I saw it two summers ago and it looked beautiful, on a huge screen in Manhattan. Really something. It made me wonder if there were considering a theatrical re-release because it was obviously made with care–but as you can guess, it was the new mix. Which is no surprise since Universal is pleased as punch with that 5.1 mix.

  2. Derek

    I hate to admit it, but the on the Whale sounds, the new mix is more accurate and mor identifyable as a whale. I don’t know if you ever heard the Pink Floyd 23=minute song “Echoes” from thier 1971 Meddle album. In the middle you hear David Gilmoure’s guitar mimicing the cry of a whale, much like you hear on the new remix. Its just that sound is just more identifyable as a whale than the in the old mix, as creepy as it sounded back then, the old sound just didnt sound like a whale to me, this one did.
    Although i will say they shouldve left the boat creaking sounds in.

    • Well, for starters, it’s interesting that you bring up “Echoes” since I happen to be on a Floyd kick the last two weeks. I’ve heard that song–the studio and live versions–prob. 10 times in the last 14 days!

      “Accurate” is a key choice of words since if Jaws were accurate it’d be very short and/or boring. (I believe there was a legendary exchange between Benchley and Spielberg about the “impossibility” of the scripted finale and you know what side Spielberg took.) To me, the only sound they should aim that would be “accurate” would be the one that worked for Spielberg, Fields, the sound editors and the Oscar voters of 1975. At the very least, it could have been edited or mixed to mimic the timing the original. I go on about this in more detail in my first post about the sound FX in Jaws, but if I were a sound editor given the job of recreating the sound FX for that film, I’d re-create–not re-invent. Sadly, no one has gone on the record about these modifications–and there are dozens in the film–whether it was Spielberg’s wishes or someone else’s decision, but even if it were Spielberg’s call, it’s worthy of the same fan outrage Lucas received for tinkering with Star Wars. The fact that very few people made a stink about this in DVD reviews in 2000 made me turn this into a rallying cry. (It’s worth a reminder: the original DVD did not have the mono mix at all. I had to cross reference the differences with my VHS tape.)

      I also think calling the new sound “more identifiable” is questionable, too. Brody, our surrogate on the boat immediately asks what that sound is and Hooper immediately tells us.

      Sorry to disagree with you so strongly, Derrick–I love that you’ve read and commented my the posts!–but I have a lot of artillery for this one!

      Solidarity, Brother!

  3. Great post Stephen. What so many people in the industry have completely forgotten is how good a mono mix can be. Kubrick mixed for mono up to THE SHINING, then stereo for FMJ. Personally, I don’t really like 5.1 at all, and tried to get a mono mix on my first film but the studio demanded a 5.1.

    The thought of people eventually listening to the film on badly wired home systems just kills me. Don’t even get me started on DTS!

  4. Pingback: Link roundup | The Sheila Variations

  5. Art

    Thanks for the great post on the sound issues on Jaws.

    I recently watched it on Netflix on Demand, and your post makes me want to get a copy of the DVD.

    BTW, thought you might enjoy this from today’s news:

  6. David

    I agree with you. The original mono version of Jaws is much better than the updated stereo version. And, it’s not just the Whale song that’s been tweaked. There are many different sound effects throughout the film itself. Too many to name them all. But, I will mention one of them. When Brody shoots the shark at the end and hits the air tank, causing the explosion, the original sound effect for the explosion sounded much better than the new one. Also, Brody’s line before he hits the shark, “Smile, you son of a…”, the last word can’t be heard in the stereo version, unless you listen very closely. However, in the original mono version, the last word is clearly heard as he fires his last bullet.

  7. Rob

    Saltobello, THANK YOU for bringing up the sound effect/whale song changes. I’ve watched this brilliant film many many times over the years. Even when it was on regular tv, full of commercials. When they changed the whale song and creaking of the boat interior, it drove me nuts. WHY?! I thought. Improving it, my foot; they ruined the experience for me (on a small scale. Of course, it’s still a great scene). There are only a few friends of mine who are Jaws nerds like me and it bothered them as well. Most other friends could care less…they just hear a whale song. They didn’t notice the change. Oh well, guess I’ll just have to find an old copy and shut my pie hole 😉

  8. Humberto

    Wow, this is really funny. I was on a long road trip tonight, and out of nowhere I started to think about the “original” Whale sound vs the “new” Whale Sound wondering why no one had noticed that the “new” whale sound makes absolutely NO SENSE whatsoever!! The “original” whale sound was hauntingly beautiful!! It fits PERFECTLY with Quint singing “Spanish Ladies”. Now it’s just crap. The whole scene, if you ask me, feels different. It was the perfect ending to Quint’s story.
    Anyway, thanks for not making me feel REALLY weird about getting mad about such a thing.

  9. My name is Daniel. I´m a sound editor from Argentina, South America.

    This post is wonderfully written and make me think about that scene.
    It was my favorite scene of the film, by far.
    The 2000 stereo mix left me disturbed. Angry.
    They replaced that beautiful, bold whale sound of 1975 mono mix,
    with an awful and unconsistent eerie sound. They kill the mood.

    It´s good to know that all over the world a lot of people think the same about this particular sound crime.

    The original soundmix of classic movies -or any movie at all-
    could be remastered, “cleaned”, splitted in several channels…
    …but should not be ALTERED at all.

    Your post make me fell good and not-so-weird about that film, that scene, that raped whale sound.

    Daniel Celina.

  10. Steve Morey

    Hi , for ages its bugged me about the whale sound change and its why i kept my original vhs before the 25th anniversary came out. I prefer the original whale sound as it was more haunting and kept the mood . I know its not accurate but hey ho etc:)

    And thank you at last someone has written about this cos for ages no one even seemed to notice apart from me (in my mind)


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