‘The Graduate’ Soundtrack at 50

Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon amidst cupcakes.

“Put it in your pantry with your cupcakes” Art Garfunkel (left) and Paul Simon provided the icing to Mike Nichols’ 1967 film The Graduate. (Photo of Simon & Garfunkel: Sandy Speiser, cupcakes courtesy of FoodNetwork.com)

The Italian novelist Italo Calvino described a classic as something that exercises a particular influence, both when imprinting itself on your imagination unforgettably and hiding in the layers of memory disguised as individual or collective unconscious. By that measure, and other reckonings, the 1967 film The Graduate, directed by Mike Nichols, and its genre-busting soundtrack are for the ages.

As the film turned 50 in December, it got quite a few retrospective examinations, including one in Variety, by Chris Morris, who explains that the soundtrack was groundbreaking in that it was the first non-musical to in effect use pop tunes as a replacement for score. Nichols being a fan of the folk duo Simon & Garfunkel, he approached them to contribute original songs, inspired by the novel (by Charles Webb) and script (by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham).

When approached to contribute original music, the counterculture crooners apparently viewed the offer with skepticism, considering the commercial interests of Hollywood could be tantamount to a “sell-out.” Eventually there was an understanding of three original songs. Word is, the group choked; Nichols rejected the new material, negotiating instead to use catalog songs.

“I’d been listening to their album every morning in the shower before I’d go to work, and then one morning it just hit me: ‘Schmuck! This is your soundtrack!’” Nichols told an interviewer from Time Out New York about duo’s second studio LP, The Sounds of Silence. Nichols had the film’s editor Sam O’Steen lay the title track over a montage sequence that was to express the inner void of the protagonist — a college student named Ben having an affair with the wife of his father’s business partner. “I brought the track over and it was like, Holy shit, this fits exactly and it’s twice as powerful! It’s one of those miraculous moments you get when you’re making a movie, where everything somehow comes together,” Nichols told the Time Out writer.

“The Sounds of Silence” was actually a track on the group’s acoustic debut effort, Wednesday Morning, 3AM, released by CBS Records in October 1964. The album was a flop, and led to the group’s breakup, but when the song’s producer, Tom Wilson, noticed it was getting some radio airplay in Boston, he was inspired to remix it with electric instruments and that version went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of ’65. Wilson, who was on staff at CBS, is alleged to have sprung the remix without the band’s knowledge or permission, according to Paul Simon: A Life author Marc Elliot, who wrote that Simon was in Denmark when he learned of his newfound success, and “horrified when he first heard” the electric version of the song. But sometimes you just need another pair of ears! 

Never one to miss an opportunity, the label got the band back together and rushed out a follow-up album that not only took its title from that hit, but used the electric version as the opening track. (It wasn’t until later greatest hits packages that the plural ‘s’ was dropped and “Silence” pared down its “Sound.”) Acting as his own music supervisor, Nichols also cherry-picked the collection’s “April Come She Will”  and a pair of songs from the duo’s third album, Parsley Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, released in October 1966: “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” and “The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine.”

The fifth Simon & Garfunkel tune emerged from a “What else ya got?” type conversation. Simon pulled out an unfinished ditty he’d been writing in homage to Eleanor Roosevelt. Nichols loved it, and with some lyrical adjustments the fifth song was set. “And so former First Lady ‘Mrs. Roosevelt’ became drunken adulteress ‘Mrs. Robinson,’ and  The Graduate acquired its key musical theme,” writes Morris.

Nichols also hired composer Dave Grusin — best known for his television work The Andy Williams Show and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. Grusin contributed six tunes” uptight yet sex-drenched big band orchestrations (“Sunporch Cha-Cha-Cha,” “The Folks”) that nicely capture the ironical tone of the authority figures and provide a sparkly counterpoint to the stylings of Simon & Garfunkel. While Grusin’s contribution has been characterized as “incidental,” it occupies almost as much soundtrack time (almost 16 minutes) as the S&G numbers (about 20 minutes). You can hear a sizable chunk of the album here  (and in the embed above).

The Graduate soundtrack spent 69 weeks on the Billboard Hot 200 album chart, where it debuted at No. 114 on March 16, 1968. By the following week it had rocketed to No. 4  and by April 6 No. 1, where it remained for a five more weeks before being bumped to No. 2 by Simon & Garfunkel’s fourth studio album, Bookends, on May 25. The two albums toggled back and forth, with The Graduate retaking the No. 1 spot on June 15, shortly after the “Mrs. Robinson” single from Bookends was released.

The version of “Mrs. Robinson” contained in the film was just “a scrap of a tune” (evident by the abundant use of “de-de-de-de’s” and “do-do-do’s”) used at various points as a backdrop to Ben’s drive time on the California coast. The lyricized version, with the full arrangement, was completed for the Bookends album, which also contains “Punky’s Dilemma” and “Overs” — two songs Paul Simon wrote specifically for The Graduate but were rejected by Nichols. Those songs never broke out, but Bookends extended Simon & Garfunkel’s residence at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart to 16 weeks in 1968, a feat eclipsed that year only by The Beatles, with 17.

Simon & Garfunkel broke up in 1970 after releasing their fifth studio album, Bridge Over Troubled Water, which sold more than 25 million copies worldwide. The 2015 play The Simon & Garfunkel Story has recently been revived in London’s West End, where it is currently playing at the Lyric Theatre.

Grusin, as noted by Albumism.com, “has since become one of the most prolific film composers in history, including acclaimed work on the scores for Heaven Can Wait (1978), The Champ (1979), On Golden Pond(1981), Tootsie (1982), The Goonies (1985) and The Milagro Beanfield War (1988), for which he won the Academy Award for Best Original Score.”

Mike Nichols died of a heart attack on Nov. 19, 2014. His presence is sorely missed.

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