Monday, June 11, 2018

Paul Simon and the Sounds of Music

No one who loves The Graduate will forget about the contribution of Paul Simon -- and the poignant Simon & Garfunkel vocal blend -- to the film’s score.  In 1967, when Mike Nichols was directing the film, he found himself playing his Simon & Garfunkel album (a gift from his younger brother) over and over as he prepared for a day on the set. Feeling that the pair’s sweet, melancholic harmonies reflected the personality of The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock, Nichols decided to hire them to write and perform three songs that would be incorporated into the movie. They were then near the height of their fame among the college set, and songwriter Paul Simon lacked time and inspiration to craft three brand-new pieces. He completed only one, “Punky’s Dilemma,” which was supposed to accompany Benjamin floating in his parents’ swimming pool. Nichols wasn’t impressed. He did like a little ditty with which Simon was fiddling: it started out “Here’s to you, Mrs. Roosevelt,” and didn’t go much further. Mrs. Roosevelt quickly became Mrs. Robinson, and that catchy snatch of music (not yet a complete song) was incorporated into Ben’s driving scenes near the movie’s end.

As the editing of the film progressed, other Simon & Garfunkel hits, notably The Sound of Silence, were used as temp tracks. Eventually Nichols and producer Larry Turman decided to keep them in the finished film. This decision didn’t sit well with financier Joseph E. Levine, who was convinced young audiences would laugh at the use of these “old” songs. Instead, moviegoers embraced the familiar tunes, and the idea of choosing music with a built-in emotional resonance for the audience has become a standard filmmaking tactic.

In the wake of The Graduate’s huge success, both Simon and Garfunkel found themselves involved in the movie industry. Robert Hilburn’s new biography, Paul Simon: The Life,  recounts how both men were originally cast in Mike Nichols’ follow-up film, a screen adaptation of Joseph Heller’s novel about the absurdity of war, Catch-22. Eventually, Simon’s small part was eliminated, but Garfunkel appeared in the featured role of the innocent young soldier, Nately. The following year, he surprised his musical partner, Simon, by accepting a major role as Jack Nicholson’s best buddy in Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge. According to Hilburn, Garfunkel’s long absences to shoot movies were part of the strain that broke up the Simon & Garfunkel partnership.

Simon, always a restless seeker after new forms of artistry, eventually decided that he too wanted to make movies. In 1980, he set about to explore on film the challenges faced by an ageing rock star working to put out a new album while struggling to save his marriage. He wrote the script and the score, and then – after interviewing actors like Richard Dreyfuss – decided  to be true to the reality of a singer’s world by playing the leading role himself. Hilburn quotes him as saying, “I didn’t want to do a film about music that I couldn’t believe in. That’s the biggest problem I found with other [rock-related] films. They seemed false. Take [the 1976 version of] A Star is Born. . . . You don’t really believe Barbra Streisand is a rock star. You always know it’s really Barbra Streisand..” But Simon, despite devoting himself to acting lessons, was not an actor.  And the film sank like a stone.

So did Simon’s attempt at writing an ambitious Broadway musical, The Capeman., despite its distinctive score. Still, Hilburn’s book reminds us that as a songwriter – and someone who has introduced music fans to the riches of other cultures – Simon remains a treasure.

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