So far in Sounds of Cinema we have focused on musical scores; that is to say, music written specifically for a film, generally in the “classical” genre, which usually occurs non-diagetically, heard only by the audience. Scores are wonderful, and we will continue to examine them in this column, but I want to expand our circle of examination just a bit this week by talking about film soundtracks. Soundtracks differ from scores in that they do not represent a unified composed whole but rather a curated collection of songs to accompany a film. They often comprise pop, rock, rap, or other mainstream styles of music.
Sometimes films have both scores and soundtracks, but often directors choose only one or the other. Scores have the advantage of presenting a consistent mood for a film, adding to the world building efforts of the director. Soundtracks usually arrive more a la carte: a song here, a song there, from any number of different artists and genres. At their worst, soundtracks feel calculated to tap into the zeitgeist of a particular moment, with the result that certain movies from the mid 90s have more value as musical time capsules than as actual films. On the other hand, effective soundtracks have their potential advantages, too. For one, soundtracks can be more organically incorporated into a film’s world. Unless the characters play instruments, diagetic scores are a problem, but there are plenty of valid reasons to have a character listen to a particular song. If curated carefully, soundtracks can be just as effective as scores at conveying a particular mood (Scorcese makes particularly good song choices which contribute to the flavor of his films). And on occasion the fates align to produce a soundtrack which not only pairs perfectly with its film, but also expresses the mood of entire generation.
Harold and Maude has such a soundtrack. The film, Hal Ashby’s countercultural recounting of a May-December romance, feels inseparable from the constant stream of Cat Stevens songs which accompanies it. That’s the old, pre-fatwa Cat, back when he was all about moonbeams and starshines and quite a bit less about jihads. Other than some well timed snippets of classical music (the swimming pool scene set to Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concert No. 1 is especially memorable), the only thing to guide us musically through the film is the plain strumming and earnest voice of Cat Stevens.
On one level Harold and Maude is a dark, dry comedy about a young man who keeps trying to “kill himself”, albeit only through non-lethal staged suicides, in order to get the attention of his rich, overbearing mother (and also seemingly to alleviate the boredom of being a child of the elite with no interests or responsibilities). The film turns radically, however, when Harold meets Maude, a spunky octogenarian who embraces life fully, sucking the marrow from its bones. Gradually they fall in love, though their relationship defies categorization: part love affair, part mentorship, part caretaking situation. Maude opens Harold’s eyes to the variegated wonders of living, helping him to embrace spontaneity over routine, wonder over cynicism, joy over morbidity. In this way the film is as much bildungsroman as it is romantic comedy.
Who better to provide music then than Stevens, whose voice always hints that he sits on the edge of exploration and adventure. His words present worlds of possibility and wonder, yet he always seems slightly hesitant, as if he fears the paths he might choose. In other words, he is a consummate poet of the young; his early output at least stands as a testament to the youth movements of the 60s and 70s. The song “On the Road to Find Out”, which appears early on in Harold and Maude, gives a good representation of the significance of Stevens’ songs for the film.
In the song Stevens sings of leaving home to “find out”, presumably to gain insight into life. He goes along the “rowdy road, many kinds I met there”. For Harold, Maude opens up a new kind of living, one that bursts with flavor, excitement, and yes, rowdiness. For the first time he sees the world as imbued with beauty and meaning. Critically, by the end of the song, Stevens has discovered that “the answer lies within”. If this sounds like a corny new age platitude - well, it is, but it is also key to understanding the film. Without spoilering anything, let’s just say that by the end Harold has discovered the inner strength to live life to its fullest. Maude has acted as his Beatrice, but no guide can take the full journey for you.
Of course, the road to change lies littered with obstacles. One wonderful aspect of the movie, something that keeps it from derailing into Candyland levels of saccharine optimism, is the grounding in suffering its characters have. Harold of course suffers from the typical modern afflictions: ennui, purposelessness, alienation. On the other hand Maude has endured real tribulation, only to emerge all the stronger. She tears up when she recalls her old life in Europe, and in one masterfully subtle shot, we see the number on her arm that shows her to be a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. This does not get shoved in the audience’s face but serves as an important background to Maude’s vivaciousness. Happiness, the movie suggests, comes not from leading a charmed life but from drinking deeply of life, even when it gives us hardships.
Stevens’ song “Trouble” plays at a key moment in the film. Addressing the personified Trouble, Stevens begs it to leave him alone. “You’re eating my heart away, and there’s nothing much left of me.” He sees trouble as “death’s disguise” and recognizes the corrosive nature of pain and worry. Again, the song comes at a devastating moment of pain in the film. Other songs about sorrow might have built the scenes to a hysterical pitch of self pity, but this song remains downbeat and straightforward, the world weariness of Cat Steven’s voice lending an air of resignation and stoic acceptance to the difficult proceedings on screen. Loss comes as surely as happiness in life - Maude never shies away from emphasizing this to Harold, but in the end he himself must choose to go on living.
Unlike most of the other songs on the soundtrack, which Ashby pulled from earlier albums, “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” was written by Stevens especially for the film. In addition, the song appears diagetically in the film, with Maude singing it to Harold. As such, it strikes the notes of the film even more perfectly than the others.
“There’s a million things to be,” the song tells us. The openness of possibility: that’s what the film, through Maude, wants to impart to us. At the beginning, Harold feels constrained by the life he has been born into, a life that demands certain standards of conduct and paths of life. He rebels against these but only in a negative sense, by pretending to end his life. Maude shows him a positive way out, a way of creation rather than destruction. Life overflows with the possibility of becoming, so do not get hedged in by your current state of being. In other words, “If you want to be me, be me; and if you want to be you, be you; cause there’s a million things to do.”
This belief in the radical possibilities of life of course marks Harold and Maude out as a product of the youth movements of its era. The sexual revolution and hippie culture certainly emphasized self fulfillment and personal identity through dropping out of the mainstream. Stevens seems an apt choice for a soundtrack then, given his status as one of the key voices in those movements (his best known song is called “Peace Train”, for goodness’ sake!). The power of the film reaches beyond its immediate cultural context, though. It is no less striking, funny, or exhilarating today because it scratches at something truly human: the desire to expose one’s true self without facing judgement or ridicule. That’s the real secret to this pairing, I think: a most raw, human movie goes well with a singer who never feared to let himself be open and exposed.