The Graduate: How music sets a tone

By Aristophanes


This post contains spoilers for the film The Graduate. Reader discretion is advised.


The Graduate alone is by all accounts a great film, but what really makes it a masterpiece is the stunning soundtrack provided by popular folk rock duo Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. From the opening tune “The Sound of Silence” to single-hit “Mrs. Robinson,” much of what is remembered about this film is how regular scenes became iconic with the inclusion of these songs. The Graduate is a rare film where every aspect from the acting, writing and directing to even the soundtrack of the movie itself are all perfectly in sync and building off of each other to achieve something more than a mere sum of parts.

Simon and Garfunkel were active mostly in the late ’50s to early ’70s, releasing their albums under the Columbia Records label. The Graduate, which was released in 1967 and heavily featured their songs, helped propel the already popular group into undeniable fame.

Right from the get-go, The Graduate kicks off with Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.” This song is meandering and filled with emotion. As the main character of Benjamin Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman, flies home after graduating from college, “The Sound of Silence” plays in the background. Benjamin gets off the plane, walking onto a moving sidewalk. As the camera follows him, we see the opening credits appear to Benjamin’s left.

The old studio system of mandatory opening credits left many films forced to begin with a very slow sort of scene. The Graduate gets around this potential problem of boring the audience by including Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” and it is quite effective. What would otherwise have been a mundane moment of travel becomes a subtle and dialogue-less introduction to the inner psyche of the main character.

Aside from “The Sound of Silence,” the most famous Simon and Garfunkel song from The Graduate is probably “Mrs. Robinson.” Notably included over Benjamin’s frantic race to the church to stop Elaine’s marriage, “Mrs. Robinson” propels the narrative in a much similar way to how “The Sound of Silence” did at the film’s beginning. We can already start to see a connection between these two songs and how they are used to cover otherwise boring scenes where nothing much is going on except transition.

“Mrs. Robinson” is another soft song, one sung as if spoken to that character specifically. With the line “And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson,” we see (or hear) the problems of her character come to the forefront. Benjamin may be the protagonist of The Graduate, but is he the one who faces the most difficult challenges? The character of Mrs. Robinson is largely forgotten in the second half of the film in favor of focusing on the struggles of Benjamin, so it’s nice to see that she and her troubles get the spotlight in at least one of Simon and Garfunkel’s tracks.

The Graduate is subtle, rich, brimming with life but speaking of death. Simon and Garfunkel’s glorious soundtrack fits the themes of the film perfectly, ultimately helping to elevate it into something truly magnificent. ■


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