2020 Grammys

R.I.P. Mike Nichols: Why 'The Graduate' Soundtrack Will Always Matter

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Promotional headshot portrait of German-born director Mike Nichols for the film, 'Carnal Knowledge,' 1971.

Earlier this week, the soundtrack to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 was released, featuring an album’s worth of original music curated by Lorde and featuring artists like Ariana Grande, Miguel, Simon Le Bon and Diplo, among others. It’s an ambitious musical project, especially in an era where movie soundtracks are increasingly harder to sell. Why commission an album’s worth of compelling collaborations when film soundtrack sales have dried up to the point where even ties to a global franchise doesn’t guarantee success? Aside from unexpected hits like the Frozen and Guardians of the Galaxy compilations, soundtracks have been suffering for a decade from the consumer ability to purchase songs a la carte and shrug off a full-length body of work.

But, really, that’s a commercial argument. The reason film soundtracks still matter is because music will always matter in movies, and when a sonic sensibility is perfectly paired with a visual theme or storytelling technique, the results can be groundbreaking. Twenty-nine years before Lorde was born, director Mike Nichols created one of those timeless compounds when he chased down Simon & Garfunkel to contribute to his 1967 dramedy The Graduate.

Unlike Lorde’s work on the Mockingjay soundtrack, the majority of Simon & Garfunkel’s music on The Graduate soundtrack, including “The Sound of Silence,” had been released prior to the film on the folk duo’s previous two albums; at that point, recycling popular music for the screen was not a common practice. That didn’t matter for Nichols, who passed away at the age of 83 on Wednesday (Nov. 19). He peppered his second and best film with pre-existing, melancholy 60’s folk-pop because it was the correct artistic choice, the right composition to capture the ennui of Dustin Hoffman’s breathless character in the film’s final shot. More than four decades later, it’s hard even to look at a poster of a young Dustin Hoffman craning his neck behind an outstretched leg and not hear those hushed words, “Hello darkness, my old friend…”

“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 said of “The Sound of Silence” in a 2012 interview with Time Out New York. “It’s one of those miraculous moments you get when you’re making a movie, where everything somehow comes together. It’s better than sex. [Pause] Okay, maybe not better, but it’s indescribably fantastic.”

The Graduate would help open up Simon & Garkfunkel to an older audience, cement Nichols’ legacy as a late-60’s filmmaking maverick and turn a then-unknown Hoffman into a household name. It also set a precedent for how a popular artist can steer the emotional impact of a film’s music. Along with composer Dave Grusin’s score, Simon & Garfunkel’s soundtrack to The Graduate represented a singular vision, composed of songs both old and new (“Mrs. Robinson” was written for the film, although it is played in a fragmented form in the film) that gave the film an aesthetic cohesion and complemented its themes of post-college dissatisfaction and rebellion. The following decades would find artists in various musical genres drawing inspiration from the silver screen and trying to replicate the indivisibility between The Graduate and Simon & Garfunkel’s soundtrack for the film, including Prince with Purple Rain, Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, Kevin Shields with Lost in Translation and Daft Punk with Tron: Legacy. Those albums range from curiosities to classics, and they might not exist if Nichols hadn’t been humming “The Sound of Silence” in his shower.

Nichols’ later films would include indelible musical moments, from Carly Simon’s “Let The River Run” in Working Girl to the finale of The Birdcage in which the principal cast sings Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” in drag. Nichols’ films vibrate with life, and the onscreen rhythms often contained unforgettable melodies. The Graduate would still have been a classic film if Nichols had found some other artist to become the face of its soundtrack, but the marriage between movie and music in this instance was so flawless that imagining a hypothetical separation is virtually impossible. It’s a specific perfection that few have ever accomplished, and which other artists, like Lorde, will forever attempt to achieve.


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