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.