From the archives: Channa Vithana / Water Music

If …

your cinematic preference is for generic action-adventure blockbusters like ‘Top Gun’ (1986) or ‘Die Hard’ (1988), then ‘The Big Blue’ will probably not be very appealing.

Though quite partial to the first ‘Die Hard,’ I also enjoy slower-paced romantic dramas, for instance David Lean’s masterpiece, ‘Brief Encounter’ (1945). ‘The Big Blue’ does indeed contain action & adventure, though of a different kind to the usual blood-thirsty, gun-toting variety. During the original 1988 release, it was reportedly a huge hit in its native France, but abroad (mostly concerning the USA) it was perceived more as an ‘arty’ European film – as there was an inferior shorter cut version with an alternate soundtrack and a ‘happy ending’.

However …

I do not see it as ‘arty’ or an all-out Hollywood spectacle, rather, for its cinematography and wonderfully acted characters revealed via an unhurriedly paced and therefore confident storyline; ‘The Big Blue’ remains one of my favourite films because it encompasses a beguiling combination of a series of enigmatic metaphors and warm earthy charm – which makes it an alluringly rare cinematic incarnation.

Directed by Luc Besson (‘Subway’ (1985), ‘Nikita’ (1990), ‘Leon’ (1994), ‘The Fifth Element’ (1997)), ‘The Big Blue’, I think, is one of the most beautiful films ever made. Its beauty is not just in the way it is photographed, but is also about enduring childhood friendships, a romance and Eric Serra’s superb original soundtrack music.

I recommend …

watching it at about 11 AM as it is important to be totally awake. The ‘Version Longue’, with Serra’s original soundtrack, is emphatically the one to see - although it is almost 3 hours long - so mid-morning lucidity (as with Kubrick’s ‘2001…’) is preferable because this longer, superior edition has a languid, graceful pace which rewards intellectually, visually and emotionally - as there are subtle questions posed about the relationship that the character Jacques Mayol (sometimes spelled Mayhol) has with the sea and the dolphins he befriends as phantasmagorical metaphors for his lost mother & father pulling him away from the earthbound affection of the two living people closest to him.

The narrative begins with …

a portrait of an introverted and thoughtful young Jacques growing up with a family history of the sea – in the film, his father is a diver. The first childhood part, beautifully shot in black & white, opens strikingly with ‘The Big Blue Overture’ which moves gracefully with the photography over the dark

and glistening water. Jacques is unnaturally drawn to the comforting cocoon-like vastness of the ocean and thus, this opening musical sequence is at once calm and enveloping, with synthesiser harmony and melody parts contrasting to a deliciously recorded, timbrally rich and texturally complex saxophone melody that is conspicuous in its delivery by not sounding at all clichéd like those in a million other Hollywood films.

And then …

subtly, the piece, through its languid pacing and intricate compositional elements echoes the brooding immensity and hidden depths lurking within the serene surface of the water.

The young Jacques grows up with an Italian boy called Enzo who likes to compete in mini-diving adventures with him to see who the best is. Enzo is big, loud and brash, and very competitive, always seeking the approval of the other peripheral friends - while Jacques is the opposite – mysterious, introspective and aloof – but never weak as he is a brilliant swimmer and diver – and this is what sets up Enzo’s fascination and secret admiration for his friend and rival, ‘The Frenchman’.

The second section starts with …

the grown-up Enzo (Jean Reno) and then the third significant character, Johana (Rosanna Arquette) who is an insurance investigator from New York. She is sent on an expedition to Peru to assess the scale and damage of a truck insured by her company containing research equipment which has tragically fallen deep beneath icy waters. When she arrives at the icy wastes of a research station nearby the lost truck, she is taken aback by the site of a partially silhouetted figure walking out of the building, shaven-haired, alien-like and wearing diving goggles & red wetsuit. It is an adult Jacques (Jean-Marc Barr) she sees.

He walks past her as if she didn’t exist down to a small hole in the icy surface and puts on a huge pair of flippers and gracefully sinks deep into the cold water without oxygen. Johana is flabbergasted by this apparent act of madness, and talks to Dr. Lawrence (Paul Shenar) who explains, using analysis equipment, that Jacques can control and slow down his heartbeat, thus conserving his inner-body oxygen much longer. During her stay Johana becomes transfixed with Jacques and her delirious feelings remain back in New York. She later sets out to find him and eventually locates him at the world free diving championships, in Sicily, Italy. Ever flamboyant and now champion diver, Enzo is there too and is also looking for his long-lost friend and rival, ‘The Frenchman’. During the latter parts, Johana falls madly in love with Jacques.

The free-diving competitions are …

shown with beautiful photography where Jacques, Enzo and the other competitors compete for the deepest dive – without oxygen or assistance. The final section of the film finds director Besson at his best where he concludes by unravelling the three interconnected characters - their feelings, emotions and lives.

Serra’s soundtrack is quite complex at times when listened to in isolation, with many fine details, and as with some bespoke film scores is also obviously episodic in parts. Thus it really works better once you have seen the film so that the sounds and images remembered can be linked for the better.

Amid the shorter one minute interludes or sequential instrumental segues required for certain events in the film, there are some standout pieces such as ‘Huacracocha’ which features the superb saxophone work of Gilbert Dall’anese, who also played on ‘The Big Blue Overture,’ while the eight minute long ‘Homo Delphinus’ has an excellent acoustic guitar performed by Jean-Michel Kajdan.

The soundtrack is …

mainly an electronic one though and features synthesisers, keyboards, piano and an assortment of electronically treated samples and sounds – so it will mostly appeal to those who like these sorts of sounds. However, the sound quality is surprisingly very good and the resolution on offer is excellent considering it is a synthesiser heavy 1980’s recording. Thus the compositions are revealed in an expansive and spatially enticing manner, like the best synthesiser music, while the bass lines are very powerful and pulsating in places which can be striking when the music is played loud and you can hear the atmospherically throbbing decay of those low-frequencies being released.

These low frequencies can really only be appreciated when the music is played at a suitably powerful volume, through larger loudspeakers - because at normal or lower levels, the impact of these three-dimensional qualities will be lost and the music sounds flatter. Serra also uses an intriguing muted bell type sound/sample to signify melodic changes and rhythmical thrusts which I find really appealing as a textural contrast – similar sounds were also used later on his outstanding electronically-aspirated ‘Goldenye’ James Bond soundtrack (1995).

I have three different editions of the score, all dated 1988. The first is the ‘Original Motion Picture Soundtrack’; the second is ‘Le Grande Bleu Volume 2’ which is a fourteen track extension containing additional music in the same vein. The third is the two-disc ‘Le Grande Bleu Version Integrale’ which contains the entire ‘…Volume 2’ and a differently sequenced first disc that omits ‘Virgin Islands’, ‘The Third Dive’ and ‘For Enzo’ which are already on ‘…Volume 2’ and instead adds a piano instrumental called ‘Much Better Down There’ (which is heard in a very important latter sequence in the film) and ‘The Second Dive’ - so it works sequentially, as a more complete score.

Much of Luc Besson’s best cinematic work features the soundtrack compositions of Eric Serra and on ‘The Big Blue’ the score is sumptuous, playful, dramatic and dream-like – just like the film.

CV 5th Jan 2007. (Jacques Mayol Obituary)

4 thoughts on “From the archives: Channa Vithana / Water Music

  1. Wow Channa i have a greater appreciation of you now -i have had that soundtrack for years and on some of the larger speakers i have it is simply awesome – thankyou in regards to the other editions -do they sound better? That is are they “digitised better”
    regards Roy
    ps some of your english magazines i am suspect about the reviews could you give your opinion on this related to your experiences

  2. Dear Roy,

    Thank you for your reply; it is always good to read feedback.

    With the different sets of ‘The Big Blue’ soundtracks, the ‘Version Integrale’ works better sequentially with the events in the film, whilst the standard ‘Original Soundtrack’ and its ‘Volume Two’ companion repeat a few tracks between them.

    However, the sound quality is quite different between the three editions! The two-disc ‘Version Integrale’ that I have states it is “made in France by PDO” and both discs sound less musical than the separate ‘Original Soundtrack’ (Manufactured In Holland) and ‘Volume Two’ (Made In Austria) – which is annoying – as together the single-disc volumes have slightly inferior musical content. The two separate discs sound better because they have superior resolution, space and depth which makes the music more immersive and involving. It is therefore not a subtle difference when these are contrasted to the two-disc ‘Version Integrale’ which has better music, but sounds thinner by comparison.

    As far as UK hi-fi magazines go – if you have any issues with one, or indeed all of them, it is best to write into those concerned with your specific questions. Any really good magazine or periodical will usually publish interesting, detailed and well-written letters with replies to the question(s) asked.

    Best Regards,

    Channa Vithana

  3. Thankyou Channa for your reply I have found there are big differences between different disk issues so I appreciate the advice –and for anyone else track down the soundtrack and be prepared to be amazed.
    I was hoping you might have devoted a column on the reviewing scene –but I guess this is like pointing a loaded gun to your head so I understand your reticence in commenting
    Keep up the good work guys the site is very refreshing
    Regards Roy

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