The Graduate: The Soundtrack
“Mrs. Robinson you’re trying to seduce me! … Aren’t you?”
With these words Hollywood, along with the rest of America, was dragged kicking and screaming from the crumbling post-war age of innocence into the delirious uncertainty of the ‘Me’ decade of the 70s, peppered as it was by marijuana, pet rocks, anti-Vietnam War protests, flower children, and the strange fruits of the sexual revolution.
The words of course came out of the mouth of one decidedly babe-like Benjamin Braddock, slack-jawed naïf and seducee, as played by Dustin Hoffman, future heavyweight Hollywood thesp in his first major film role. The Mrs. Robinson in question was the late great Anne Bancroft, Oscar-winner for The Miracle Worker (the ‘inspiration’ for Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black) and after this film, forever the object of countless ‘older woman’ fantasies involving secret hotel-room romps and leopard print undies. And the film? That would be Mike Nichols’ seminal coming-of-age hit The Graduate.
The film has long since entered the pantheon of pop-culture phenomena. ‘Mrs. Robinson’ is now a euphemism for a forbidden dalliance (as in, “Don’t you think she’s a little too ‘Mrs. Robinson’ for you?); Bancroft’s retort to Hoffman’s bewildered query (“I am NOT trying to seduce you! … Would you like me to seduce you? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”) found itself as the opening lyric of George Michael’s early-90s catwalk staple ‘Too Funky’; and a suitably reverential viewing of the film has become nothing less than a rite-of-passage for any young man or woman turning twenty-one.
But it is the film’s soundtrack that is the real clincher, and many who have never even seen the film know the music. In many ways, the soundtrack is as much a landmark as the film itself in that it signalled a departure from the norm by establishing a strong link between the film and pop music industries, and gave new meaning to the term ‘musical’. Hitherto, if a film wasn’t a Broadway transfer or an all-singing-and-dancing ‘musical’ in the strictest sense, then a soundtrack meant the neo-classical orchestrations of baton-wielding wizards such as Henry Mancini, Bernard Herrmann and the like. ‘Pop’ singers were not film composers. At most, they could be singing movie stars ala Elvis or Sinatra, or they could be onscreen novelty performers, like Gene Vincent et al in the Jayne Mansfield starrer The Girl Can’t Help It.
The Graduate, true to its times-they-are-a-changing look and attitude, gave the usual composers a miss and instead employed a pair of on-the-verge folk-rockers to give the film a unique sound. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel signed on to do the song score and wrote themselves into the history books. The resulting record not only became one of the largest selling film soundtracks of all time but also helped pioneer the vogue of pop artists providing songs for film scores e.g. Cat Stevens’ splendid score for Harold & Maude, and the Bee Gees’ contribution to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.
Though the film does have additional instrumental music by Dave Grusin, it is Simon and Garfunkel’s music that is the star of the show. Mainly wise pickings from their existing repertoire (found on their 1966 album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme), the songs nevertheless fit the film like the proverbial glove, setting a moodily romantic tone for a film that has ironically been credited with the gleeful and welcome assassination of the romantic comedy.
“Hello darkness my old friend…” Paul Simon’s goose-bump inducing lyrics for ‘The Sound of Silence’ have been found scrawled across many a college wall, speaking for successive generations of angst-ridden young ‘uns. The soundtrack boasts both the electric and the acoustic versions, the latter also sans the drum track. For obvious reasons it is the acoustic version that is most remembered and loved: the chords are simple enough for the aspiring guitarist to figure out on his/her instrument, and in that simplicity lies its sheer beauty and brilliance. When you have perfect harmony of words and music, why ruin it with pomp and circumstance?
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more.
People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening,
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dare
Disturb the sound of silence
Then you have the iconic koo-koo-ka-choo strums of ‘Mrs, Robinson’, a tongue-in-cheek ode to a woman who sweeps you off your feet, lands you on your ass, and adds you to her collection of skeletons in the closet. Now irrevocably associated with the magnificent Bancroft and the film, it is easy to forget that the song is a gem on its own too, what with its rhythm-heavy melody and Simon’s irreverent lyrics.
The woefully underrated ‘April Come She Will’ encapsulates a whole narrative strain of the film:
April come she will
When streams are ripe and swelled with rain;
May, she will stay,
Resting in my arms again.
June, she’ll change her tune,
In restless walks she’ll prowl the night;
July, she will fly
And give no warning to her flight.
August, die she must,
The autumn winds blow chilly and cold;
September I’ll remember
A love once new has now grown old.
The oddball-ness of ‘The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine’, another lesser known number, speaks to the mechanised zombie in all of us:
Do people have a tendency to dump on you?
Does your group have more cavities than theirs?
Do all the hippies seem to get the jump on you?
Do you sleep alone when others sleep in pairs?
Well there’s no need to complain,
We’ll eliminate your pain.
We can neutralize your brain.
You’ll feel just fine
Buy a big bright green pleasure machine!
For me though, the piece de resistance has to be the sublime ‘Scarborough Fair/Canticle’. Musically a twin to ‘The Sound of Silence’, it presents a strange paradox in that its ostensible simplicity drives its inherent complexity. Does that make sense? It hardly matters. All you have to do is listen. Listen to Art Garfunkel’s seraphic tenor as it harmonises to perfection with Paul Simon’s lower, warmer tones over layers of guitars, bells and woodwinds. Listen to the all-too-brief flute interlude that is a tiny miracle in itself. And the wondrous lyrics that, especially in the context of the film, take on an almost other-worldly, haunting quality:
Tell her to find me an acre of land,
(on the side of a hill a sprinkling of leaves)
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme;
(washes the grave with silvery tears)
Between the salt water and the sea strand,
(a soldier cleans and polishes a gun)
Then she’ll be a true love of mine.
Tell her to reap it with a sickle of leather,
(war bellows blazing in scarlet battalions)
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme;
(generals order their soldiers to kill)
And gather it all in a bunch of heather,
(and to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotten)
Then she’ll be a true love of mine.
Are you going to Scarborough fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.
Remember me to one who lives there.
She once was a true love of mine.
Simon and Garfunkel of course went on to even greater things, and reached even greater levels of success, as did Bancroft, Hoffman and Nichols. But as a piece in which everything came together perfectly to the point of zen, The Graduate remains a timeless classic.