The Pop Innovations of a 50-Year-Old Soundtrack

The Graduate’s use of folk-rock songs by Simon and Garfunkel stood in for a generation’s reaction to the status quo.

Simon and Garfunkel
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When Mike Nichols’s low-budget comedy-drama The Graduate premiered in December 1967, it arrived during a time of national unrest. Many Baby Boomers were pushing back against the status quo: The military draft and the escalation of the war in Vietnam, combined with movements calling for civil rights and women’s liberation, prompted students and activists to protest the political and social establishment of the time. For those Boomers feeling alienated from their parents’ generation, The Graduate mirrored their disillusionment via a more personal, rather than ideologically charged, story.

Adapted from what was then a little-known novel of the same name by Charles Webb, the coming-of-age film follows 21-year-old Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) as he finishes college and struggles to find purpose in a world of meaningless consumption. Uncertain about his future, Benjamin embarks on an empty affair with an older woman—Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft)—while desperately pursuing her daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross). The Graduate quickly became a hit after its release (grossing $104.9 million on a $3 million budget) and garnered several Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.

Though its storyline was certainly provocative, The Graduate stood out for another reason: Nichols’s groundbreaking decision to use previously released songs for the soundtrack, which came out 50 years ago this month. Previously, traditional orchestral film scores were used simply to provide background music for onscreen action. So The Graduate’s heavy reliance on the folk-rock songs of the popular duo Simon and Garfunkel was unprecedented: By the time the film was released, many of the major tunes were already well known. “The Sound of Silence,” now indelibly associated with the movie, had already reached No. 1 on Billboard’s charts in January 1966. The Graduate’s musical innovations are all the more notable for how the soundtrack meaningfully commented on the plot, the characters, and, by extension, the viewers themselves.

The folk-rock sound of Simon and Garfunkel’s most beloved records both defined and belonged to the youth of the period, a notion driven home by how Nichols uses the songs in the film: No scene in which older generations are the focus contains the group’s music. “Young people at the time may have had idiosyncratic or subjective relationships, or intimate bonds with Simon and Garfunkel’s music,” David Shumway, a professor of English who studies American culture and popular music at Carnegie Mellon University, told me. “But many of them also would have understood it as a way they shared the world with other people their own age.” Where other directors may have seen these preexisting associations as a burden, or at least a possible distraction from the story, Nichols embraced the songs’ meaning.

For Nichols, the soundtrack was meant to be heard, a choice that would go on to influence popular films for decades to come. After all, Simon and Garfunkel’s lyrics represented more than just commentary on the on-screen action—they had begun serving as a soundtrack for the lives of the youth of the late 1960s as they confronted enormous changes. Listening to rock at the time was for many young moviegoers a statement that they were rejecting the politics of their parents. “In 1967, there was a very strong cultural identity linked to rock and roll, and Simon and Garfunkel are a good representation of that,” Shumway said. A generation of viewers would have been inclined to empathize with The Graduate’s protagonist, he added: “Benjamin’s been a perfect conformist until he graduates. One of the things the ’60s counterculture was about was individual freedom.” Nichols cleverly uses the music to underscore this tension.

When the movie opens, the haunting tune “The Sound of Silence” plays as Benjamin arrives at the Los Angeles International Airport from college. The first somber notes and lyrics—“Hello darkness, my old friend / I’ve come to talk with you again”—immediately suggest the character’s persistent loneliness. Benjamin rides a moving sidewalk like a piece of luggage on a conveyer belt; the lost look in his eyes as other travelers pass by him hints at his lack of agency in the face of his parents’, and society’s, expectations for him. The lyrics double down on his alienation as the instrumentals grow more energetic: “And in the naked light I saw / Ten thousand people, maybe more / People talking without speaking / People hearing without listening.” Though Benjamin himself hasn’t said a word, the tone and sense of where the plot is headed have been established by the music alone.

Simon and Garfunkel’s music frequently serves a Greek Chorus–type function throughout The Graduate, as the author H. Wayne Schuth notes in his 1978 book, Mike Nichols. The songs’ lyrics not only comment on the onscreen action, but also give insight into the way a character feels, and perhaps even articulate what the characters cannot say. Nichols uses songs for wordless montage sequences or scenes with only voiceover narration, allowing the viewer to more easily become swept up in the melodies and lyrics, Shumway said.

Each of the major songs in the film is associated with one of the main characters. While the somber and complex “The Sound of Silence” often plays during scenes centered on Benjamin, the sensual and seemingly wistful “April Come She Will” is about Mrs. Robinson and the duo’s ill-fated affair. Meanwhile, the romantic tune “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” is about Elaine, with most verses ending, “Then she’ll be a true love of mine,” reminding viewers that Benjamin sees her as the ultimate object of his affections. The song that became most associated with the film is “Mrs. Robinson,” which existed in a rough form before Nichols and the duo developed it to be part of the soundtrack. Its upbeat melody and empathetic lyrics (“God bless you, please”) stand in sharp contrast to the gloomy “Sound of Silence.” When it plays during the climactic scenes of The Graduate, “Mrs. Robinson” seems to function as a farewell to the murkiness of the past, amplifying Benjamin’s sense of hopefulness that he might be able to create a new future for himself.

The Graduate’s radical approach to film music happened almost by accident. Both Nichols and the producer Lawrence Turman were fans of Simon and Garfunkel, and knew they wanted to use the duo’s songs for the film’s soundtrack. Turman negotiated a deal for Paul Simon to write three new songs for the project, but the group’s tour schedule got so busy, Simon never got around to it. “Most directors and editors lay in temporary music to get an emotional feeling and a rhythm while they’re editing,” Turman told me. “Sam O’Steen, the editor, had laid in ‘The Sound of Silence,’ and ‘Scarborough Fair,’ and Mike [Nichols] turned to me and said, ‘We’ll be so used to these old songs, we won’t like the new ones,’ and I said … ‘Well, we’ll use the old songs!’ And that’s exactly what we did.”

Once the film was completed, Nichols and Turman showed the final cut to Joseph Levine, the movie’s financier, who said, ‘‘‘It’s the best ever, and once you get the new songs in, it’ll be fantastic!’” Turman told me. “We said, ‘But, Joe, those are the songs we’re using.’ And he just turned [ashen]. He said, ‘But every kid in the country knows those songs! They’ll laugh you off the screens!’” Turman and Nichols debated what to do, but ultimately decided to go with their instincts and keep the music as it was.

In a 1967 New York Times movie review, Bosley Crowther praised the film’s score, noting the “dandy modern folk music, sung (offscreen, of course) by the team of Simon and Garfunkel, has the sound of today’s moody youngsters.” Writing for The Hollywood Reporter, John Mahoney called “The Sound of Silence” in particular “an inspired selection for underscoring and a significant component of the film.” Roger Ebert initially called the duo’s songs “instantly forgettable,” but 30 years later acknowledged he had been wrong (he did lament in 1997, though, that “the liberating power of rock and roll is shut out of the soundtrack … the S&G songs are melodic, sophisticated, safe”).

The Graduate’s original soundtrack went on to become huge hit: It rose to No. 1 on the Billboard charts following its release and spent almost as much time in the top spot as the Beatles’ White Album, which came out later that year. The record featured two versions of the Grammy Award–winning song “Mrs. Robinson,” which won Record of the Year in 1969 (though the full version didn’t appear until Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends album was released in April).

It is, of course, difficult to reflect on The Graduate’s success without also recalling how it helped begin the long and fruitful career of Hoffman, who allegedly sexually harassed and assaulted multiple women on the sets of his projects in the ’70s and ’80s. (Hoffman’s attorney dismissed the claims against the performer as “defamatory falsehoods.”) Decades ago, The Graduate’s music spoke to viewers disenchanted with the establishment of the time; today, the backlash against men like Hoffman who stand accused of abusing positions of privilege suggests that there will always be people willing to challenge entrenched systems of power.

While the unique cultural milieu in the late 1960s means the narrower set of associations between film and popular music probably won’t be re-created again, it’s the sound of resistance and resilience—not silence—that perhaps resonates the most as The Graduate turns 50. Today, a newer generation might push back against the status quo with a decidedly different and more fragmented soundtrack. But Nichols’s contributions to cinema are worth remembering as Hollywood continues to evolve, bringing an even wider range of stories and musical innovations to the big screen.