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« Interview: François Ozon talks "Double Lover" and the greatest French actresses... | Main | Review: The 15:17 To Paris »
Wednesday
Feb142018

Soundtracking: "Harold and Maude"

by Chris Feil

Some of our greatest cinematic love stories are more than the coupling at the center. As in life, the love can be more deeply felt when both sides of the arrangement have had their own separate journeys that inform and are informed by their relationship. Conflicting personal priorities, emotional walls dismantled, allowing oneself to accept being loved - it’s the personal obstacles that allow us to get swept up in the romance. One of the (cult) classics of this kind of love story is Hal Ashby’s delicate Harold and Maude, with Harold’s emotional arc towards self-acceptance all underscored with the musical stylings of a Cat Stevens soundtrack.

Would that all of our romantic foibles and internal battles could sound as lovely as this...

A few years after The Graduate gave us an omnipresent Simon and Garfunkle for Benjamin Braddock’s more bro-inflected ennui, Harold and Maude uses a singular musical voice to more transformative effect. Cat Stevens’s voice initially serves as to amplify the voice within Harold stifled by the expectations of his conservative wealthy upbringing. “Don’t Be Shy” twinkles in peacefully and sunnily establishes his isolated point of view, as if its optimistic lyrics are a mantra for his depressive episodes he doesn’t yet buy into.

Note how the presence of Vivian Pickles’ haughty mother stifles the musicality in the film along with Harold’s expression. Like his reaction-seeking staged suicides, the music cuts back in aggressively in bursts of petulant and rapturous feeling once we’re free of her demanding grasp. Stevens’ sometimes tidal emotionality places us right into the yourning heart longing to be freed under Harold’s placid facade.

We treated to several other Stevens tracks throughout, projecting the texture of isolation and mortality that Harold is working through in his own head - “Miles From Nowhere”, “On the Road to Find Out”, “Tea for the Tillerman”. Stevens’ folk sound embodies the peaceful counterculture that Harold finds himself more spiritually at home within, with the percussive hugeness also reflecting his fatalist fascinations. But when Maude is introduced and quickly ingrained in his thoughts, the music becomes at once less necessary for his expression and more ecstatic.

If “Don’t Be Shy” feels like a self-acknowledgment of what ails Harold, then “If You Want to Sing Out” is Maude’s answer to that song’s emotional fragility. Maude coaxes Harold to literally and metaphorically sing. There’s simplicity to its lyrical argument that’s hard to argue with, a clarity that reveals a universal honesty and makes his pain easier to release. As Harold begins to find his voice, we hear a little bit less from Stevens as their improbable romance takes hold.

And in its simple uplifting rhyme, this signature song quickly peels the layers of his disposition in waves of gleeful abandon. Its the feeling of giving and especially receiving joy. For Harold it simplifies his outlook and readjusts his emotional trajectory, but for Maude it becomes a heartbreaking final message to impart.

How many lesser montages did Hal Ashby and Cat Stevens birth with “Trouble”? The precision of editing to the music and emotional rhythms of the sequence here create the prototype for tearjerking music moments. You’ve seen them in every romantic comedy and since, but seldom do they carry the weight of consequences for one character’s arc and our affection for another with such full authentic soul.

Once again, Cat Stevens becomes the voice to express what Harold fails to. Those former brazen intrusions of the boisterous music of Harold’s outbursts is replaced here with something more bruised and bruising. Despite the heartache, the song’s hesitant pain suggests a less impulsive and reactionary Harold, but still a shattered and ashamed one. “Too shocking to see...”

The fake out that Harold reverts back to his former self is dissolved as quickly as it rears its head. With Maude’s passing Harold also lets his isolation die, guided by Maude’s graceful message of self-love and self-acceptance. The odd May-December element of their relationship is dwarfed by their ability to have seen eachother and been seen by one another, to ascribe value to one another for who they are. When the “If You Want to Sing Out” returns, it reminds not only of that transformative love but of Harold’s journey within it. As instructed, he goes and loves some more.

Happy Valentines's Day!

All Soundtracking installments can be found here!

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Reader Comments (6)

Harold & Maude is one of my absolute FAVORITE movies - the dialogue, the music, acting are all aces!!

February 14, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterceebee

Also a favorite of mine. The “Trouble” sequence is a master class in dialogue-free music montages, which I’m a total sucker for.

February 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJames from Ames

I recall the soundtrack of this terrific movie being aves.

February 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMe34

A great film, one strengthened by a great soundtrack. As an aside - Vivian Pickles in this is one of my favorite mothers in a movie.

February 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterScottC

Definitely one of my all-time favorite films and one of the best soundtracks ever. Here is something I learned about the film when I bought the Criterion DVD. The music in the film were really demos that Yusuf was working on at the time and it surprised Hal Ashby that he decided to use it as they were. Yusuf admitted he was a bit miffed over the fact that it was the demos that were used but was happy to see that those songs mean so much.

February 14, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

Just watched this again the other week (for the 100th time, it would seem). One of my favorite movies, due in no small part to Cat Stevens' music. Beautiful & insightful write up, thanks!

February 15, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRob

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