Most jaded hipsters suffering from post-college depression can relate to Benjamin Braddock, the title character of Mike Nichols’ 1968 film The Graduate. Crushed under the weight of his parents’ expectations and paralyzed with indecision about his future, 21-year-old Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman, in his breakthrough role) stumbles into an affair with a married woman (Anne Bancroft) before unexpectedly falling for her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross).
His journey is set to music by Simon & Garfunkel, whose wistful lyrics and whimsical chords beautifully convey the struggle to find meaning in the monotony of life. Each song is a pathway into Benjamin’s troubled mind, bringing out his fear and loneliness, but also his desire to reject the hopelessly empty ideals of his superficial elders. This story, just as effective and relevant today as it was 40 years ago, brilliantly illustrates the emergence of a new kind of man—one who seeks self-actualization over social conformity.
The film opens with “The Sounds of Silence,” a brooding ode to societal alienation and frustration that serves as Benjamin’s inner monologue. He is flying back home to Los Angeles after his college graduation, and as the moving walkway at the airport propels him forward into the unknown, the music also floats him along on a cloud of echoing, angelic harmonies. Still, lyrics such as, “Hello darkness my old friend/I’ve come to talk to you again,” speak to Benjamin’s isolated confusion and despair, with every pluck of the guitar and crash of cymbals forming a new worry in his mind.
“April Come She Will” represents Benjamin’s youthful hope of finding true love, even in the midst of a strictly physical tryst with Mrs. Robinson. When Elaine becomes his sole romantic interest, however, his mind becomes maddeningly consumed by thoughts of her. “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” plays during a dreamy montage sequence of Benjamin traveling to Elaine’s school in an attempt to win her heart. It is an ethereal meditation, trancelike and slightly eerie with its music box harpsichord and neo-ambient tones. The lyrics also mirror Benjamin’s intense feelings of heartbreak and loss: “Remember me to one who lives there/For she once was a true love of mine.”
Only one of the Simon & Garfunkel songs on the soundtrack was written for the movie—the jaunty yet surprisingly philosophical “Mrs. Robinson.” Unfortunately, the film version is stripped down significantly in comparison to the track featured on their next album, Bookends, with simplistic thumping guitar and rhythmic “dee-dee-dees” providing background music for Benjamin’s race to the altar.
The rest of Simon & Garfunkel’s contributions were taken from the duo’s two previous LPs, as director Mike Nichols was a big fan of their music at the time and wanted some of their current hits to be included in the film. Although the cinematic versions of “The Sound of Silence” and “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” are exquisite, this album is sorely lacking the oft-quoted (and unexpectedly profound) lyrics about lost innocence that make “Mrs. Robinson” such a classic.
Despite this glaring omission, the incredible artistic talents of Simon & Garfunkel remain intact. While their songs represent the freethinking youth culture of the late 1960s, a lounge-style orchestral score from jazz composer Dave Grusin makes up the other half of the soundtrack and embodies the stuffy façade of the adults. The cha-chas and foxtrots are pompously exaggerated, but that is entirely the point. This musical juxtaposition fits perfectly with the tug-of-war going on inside Benjamin’s head: Will he conform to the outdated standards of the fussy older generation or defy tradition and follow his own path? He ultimately chooses the latter, but not without consequence. His questions still lack answers and his mind still reverberates with the hollowness of his own doubts and insecurities—the all-too-familiar sound of silence.
At the end of the film, Benjamin steals Elaine away from her wedding to another man and they escape on the back of a bus together. But as an acoustic reprise of “The Sound of Silence” softly begins to play, a dark cloud passes over their faces and their smiles slowly fade into blank stares of uncertainty and regret. The music is a tender reminder of how confusing and painful growing up can be, making this scene one of the best movie endings of all time.
With its lasting impact of musical, cultural and historical significance, The Graduate soundtrack is a timeless masterpiece and required listening for film and music lovers alike.