After the soundtrack album for Mike Nichols’ comedy/drama “The Graduate” was released on Jan. 21, 1968, it quickly vaulted to No. 1 on the American LP charts, where it established itself as something distinctly new and different.
It was not the soundtrack for a movie musical like “West Side Story,” whose 54-week reign at the top of the chart remains an all-time record. Nor did it accompany a feature film by pop’s previous soundtrack champs, the Beatles (three No. 1 albums, including late 1967’s “Magical Mystery Tour”) and Elvis Presley (three chart-toppers between 1957-61).
Instead, “The Graduate” deployed the New York folk-pop duo Simon & Garfunkel’s music as a tool to underscore and comment on the emotion in its oft-caustic, satirical narrative.
It was an uncommon, and uncommonly effective, movie-making gambit – albeit one that employed scarcely any new material by its marquee musicians. Its most memorable song arrived as little more than a minute-long wisp of a tune.
Nichols’ film – a follow-up to his hit 1966 directorial debut “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” – adapted a first novel published by Charles Webb in 1963. Set in upscale Southern California, “The Graduate” followed the chaotic progress of a love affair between alienated college graduate Benjamin Braddock (then-newcomer Dustin Hoffman) and Mrs. Robinson (Oscar winner Anne Bancroft), the embittered wife of his father’s law partner, and his subsequent wooing of the older woman’s daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross).
The director, a fan of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s music, had approached the pair about contributing music to the picture, but his initial overtures were met with disinterest, and it was only after producer Lawrence Turman got involved that a deal for three new songs by the duo was sealed.
According to a 2008 Vanity Fair piece by Sam Kashner about the making of the film, progress on the music was not smooth. The meticulous Simon managed to complete only one song, “Punky’s Dilemma,” which Nichols rejected for use in the movie.
However, Nichols and his editor Sam O’Steen proceeded with the cutting of the picture using extant Simon & Garfunkel numbers as temp tracks: “The Sound of Silence,” the 1965 number that became the act’s breakthrough hit (after a remix by producer Tom Wilson that added a rock bottom to the song); the English folk adaptation “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” and Simon’s “The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine,” both from the 1966 album “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme”; and the “Scarborough Fair” single B-side “April Come She Will.”
Those songs all survived in the finished film, and they enhance the action affectingly. It’s difficult to imagine Benjamin’s stunned passage on the L.A. airport’s motorized sidewalk during the opening credits without the accompaniment of “The Sound of Silence.” Likewise, montage sequences intercutting Benjamin’s lassitude at his parents’ poolside with his hotel room trysts with Mrs. Robinson are unthinkable without “Silence” or “April Come She Will.”
Those hushed tracks all gain additional power from Nichols’ overall narrative strategy: Scarcely a note of music is heard during the rest of “The Graduate.” Composer David Grusin’s incidental music serves as, for instance, a raucous band at a Hollywood strip joint or a hotel orchestra at a society party, but the film eschews conventional underscoring.
Viewing the film today, one is struck by its long sequences comprising nothing besides dialog and sound effects. The overall quiet of “The Graduate” makes its subdued use of the Simon & Garfunkel songs all the more effective.
As the film neared completion, there was still something lacking in its music. Nichols leaped at the chance to use a scrap of an insinuating little tune Simon had written about Eleanor Roosevelt. And so former First Lady “Mrs. Roosevelt” became drunken adulteress “Mrs. Robinson,” and “The Graduate” acquired its key musical theme.
The snatch of the song heard in Nichols’ feature is little more than a chorus, and sports only provisional lyrics; its place-holding “deet-da-dee-dee” refrain implies that it was nowhere near completion when it was recorded for the film.
Yet is is “Mrs. Robinson” that supplies headlong energy and rising suspense for the last 15 minutes of “The Graduate.” The song and its incessant, sharply played acoustic guitar chords course underneath Benjamin’s frenetic drive in his little red Alfa Romeo, from Berkeley to Southern California, back to Berkeley and down to Santa Barbara, as he madly pursues Elaine Robinson, on her way to the altar with another man.
In an inspired mating of music and image, “Mrs. Robinson” slows to a crawl and stops as Benjamin’s sports car runs out of gas as he nears the church where Elaine is to be married. In the film’s last frames, the reunited couple contemplates their uncertain future in the back of a municipal bus, to a reprise of “The Sound of Silence.”
Powered to a great extent by Simon & Garfunkel’s music – which cut against the grain of the film’s slightly dated social commentary – “The Graduate” became a major box office hit, and made Hoffman an overnight star.
Many moviegoers who may have been only vaguely aware of Simon’s songs snapped up the soundtrack album, which spent nine weeks at No. 1 and ultimately sold more than 2 million copies, collecting a Grammy Award for Simon and Grusin as best original score in 1969.
It was immediately apparent that listeners had not yet gotten their fill of “Mrs. Robinson,” and the soundtrack album was still climbing the charts when Simon and Garfunkel entered the studio in early February to record a lyrically bulked-up, instrumentally fleshed-out version of the song. Released in April 1968, the single take of “Mrs. Robinson” leaped to No. 1 on the pop singles chart, where it spent three weeks.
The same month, it was included on Simon & Garfunkel’s next studio album “Bookends” (along with the rejected “Punky’s Dilemma”); the LP directly succeeded the “Graduate” soundtrack at No. 1 on the album chart, giving the twosome a total of 16 consecutive weeks at the apex in 1968; only the Beatles, with 17 total weeks at the pinnacle, bested them overall that year.
Not bad for the soundtrack of a movie about a young man who is, in his own words, “just drifting.”