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Simon & GarfunkelDave Grusin - The Graduate (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) Music Album Reviews

Simon & GarfunkelDave Grusin - The Graduate (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) Music Album Reviews
Featuring Simon & Garfunkel’s studious folk and the easy listening of Dave Grusin, a new vinyl reissue attests that what makes a fascinating artifact does not always make for an especially good listen.

Like any good tale of generational conflict, The Graduate will mean different things to different people at different times in their lives. When I first watched Mike Nichols’ film as a college student, roughly the same age as its disaffected anti-hero Benjamin Braddock, I saw it as a coming-of-age tale about the exploitation of youth by an older generation and as a righteous upheaval of middle- and upper-class norms. A lifetime later, when I was closer to the age of Mrs. Robinson, I understood The Graduate to be a horror story about an older woman who, like her young paramour, is searching for meaning but ultimately must endure endless indignities and the ingratitude of the youth.

Neither interpretation is any more wrong or right than the other, but the skirmishes between children and parents and between the young and the old in the middle/late 1960s spills over onto the film’s soundtrack, a hastily organized collection commonly credited to Simon & Garfunkel but featuring just as much—if not more—music by jazz pianist Dave Grusin. It’s not a collaboration between them, more like a war reenactment, with the folk duo representing youth culture and the composer giving voice to their older nemeses with a series of lushly orchestrated easy-listening tunes. Throughout the soundtrack’s short duration, these very different songs and sounds butt heads, sparking some unusual musical juxtapositions as well as some jagged transitions. As this new vinyl reissue attests, what makes the record a fascinating artifact does not always make it an especially good listen.

The Graduate was perfectly timed for Simon & Garfunkel, who by 1967 had released three albums of studious folk music but were nevertheless losing ground to harder rock acts and grittier folkies like Bob Dylan and Neil Young. “One of the duo’s biggest ’sins,’” writes Robert Hilburn in his new biography Paul Simon: The Life, “was that much of its music could appeal to both young people and their parents.” The very things that led many to dismiss the duo—being too bookish, too New York, too self-serious—made them ideal for Nichols’ project. Their gentle harmonies and especially Paul Simon’s lyrics helped him shape the character of Benjamin, who I always assumed had discovered Simon & Garfunkel at whatever East Coast university his parents sent him to and imported them to sunny California. Their music speaks to an intensity of youthful emotion that doesn’t always have a ready or dignified outlet for expression.

Nichols used three songs as placeholders during production: “The Sound of Silence,” their biggest hit to date; “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” their cover of a centuries-old ballad that subtly doubles as an anti-war anthem; and “April Come She Will,” a short, plaintive B-side about the changing of seasons and moods. Together, they form something like Benjamin’s internal monologue, the quiet space in his head where he retreats from the din of the adult world. But they also put him in a very particular place culturally: Simon & Garfunkel may have dabbled in hippie ideas but they were far from countercultural. Nichols’ film arrived the same year as Forever Changes, Are You Experienced?, and Surrealistic Pillow, among other psychedelic touchstones. By comparison, the duo’s austere folk songs would have sounded square and safe, but that only made them more relatable to the young moviegoers who made The Graduate the top-grossing film of 1967. Likewise, Benjamin isn’t meant to be part of the counterculture nor is he part of the establishment, but adrift between the two.

Simon wrote new songs for the film, but Nichols rejected all but one, a rough scrap called “Mrs. Roosevelt” that was little more than a chugging melody and a chorus that namedrops Jesus and Joe DiMaggio. Catchy and evocative, commenting only obliquely on Benjamin’s predicament, it shows up in the film and on the soundtrack in its unfinished form, practically an acoustic demo that hints at the popular version to come. Simon & Garfunkel completed it only after the release of The Graduate, so the film’s most popular song doesn’t even appear on its soundtrack or on this reissue. Released as a single, it became the duo’s second No. 1, the first rock song to win the Grammy for Record of the Year, and arguably their most enduring hit. So here’s to you, “Mrs. Robinson,” for redefining the duo in the public eye and transforming them from folkie squares into establishment hitmakers who could reach the youth audience.

The Graduate pits Simon & Garfunkel against an older, moneyed generation represented by Dave Grusin’s composition, which are grounded in the florid easy-listening and middle-brow exotica of the era—artists like Mantovani, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, Henry Mancini, and Bert Kaempfert, and others would play on her expensive hi-fi. He writes and arranges with a knowing wink that plays up the comedic spirit of Nichols’ film, whether it’s “The Singleman Party Foxtrot” dancing around the social improprieties that Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson are about to break or the bounce of “A Great Effect” turning sex into a lurid spectacle. Grusin is obviously having a lot more fun on this soundtrack than Simon & Garfunkel.

When I first watched The Graduate, I laughed at these garish pop confections, as though they were themselves the film’s best punchlines. With age and perspective, however, I’ve grown to love their goofy opulence and to realize their grave implications. Just as “The Sound of Silence” voices Benjamin’s vague fears about his future, even a song as frivolous as “Sunporch Cha-Cha-Cha” reveals Mrs. Robinson’s deep sadness. She hides all her regrets and pain behind those candyfloss flutes and taffy strings, the jet-setting horns and exotic percussion. With its jarring transitions from one style to another, the soundtrack never quite reconciles these two generations or the music they used to define themselves, and perhaps for that reason, it works less as an album and more as a souvenir from an era when American culture teetered on the edge of enormous change.

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