Cinema Sounds: Harold and Maude

A cult classic, the Hal Ashbury-directed and Colin Higgins-written film Harold and Maude hit theaters in 1971. The film stars Bud Court and Ruth Gordon in the title roles, shocking and charming audiences with their unorthodox love. Harold was 19-years-old, with Maude 60 years his senior.

Yet, there’s another noteworthy dynamic to this film. The music. Composed entirely by Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam), the film’s soundtrack carries clout. While Stevens contributed a variety of past material, he also penned two songs specifically for the film. The exclusive “Don’t Be Shy” and “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” didn’t surface on an album until Steven’s 1984 compilation, Footsteps in the Dark. However, it would be another 23 years before an official film soundtrack was released. In 2007 Vinyl Films Records issued 2,500 vinyl copies. The limited edition soundtrack included the most extensive history of Harold and Maude, with a 30-page booklet containing cast and crew interviews, and with good reason. As it stands today, the music and film walk hand in hand, just like the film’s titular couple.

Throughout the film, the age difference between Harold and Maude is contrasted in an abstract way. Instead of focusing on the societal aspect of the May-December romance, the film juxtaposes Maude’s strong sense of self with Harold’s feelings of insignificance. While Maude is part of the generation that has survived the Holocaust, Harold belongs to the generation in which Vietnam, argued by some to be a meaningless war, is taking place. Perfectly underscoring Harold’s feelings are the songs “On the Road to Find Out” and “I Wish, I Wish”. Both depict a youth’s longing for answers in a time of confusion; a transitional period where one is quick to form opinions, which are just as easily discarded. In “I Wish, I Wish”, originally released on 1970’s Mona Bone Jakon, Stevens is passive about his quest for knowledge, as is Harold prior to meeting Maude.

“I wish, I wish I knew what makes me, me, and what makes you, you. It’s just another point of view, oh. A state of mind I’m going through, yes. So what I see is never true, ah.”

“On the Road to Find Out”, which was released after “I Wish, I Wish”, offers a more progressive, yet still transition-oriented approach.

“So on and on I go. The seconds tick the time out. There’s so much left to know, and I’m on the road to find out.”

The most poignant scene occurs while Maude explains the merits of being unique to Harold and tackles any feelings of insignificance or desires of normality. As the two sit among daisies, Harold shares his wish to be a daisy because “they’re all alike.” In response Maude explains the flower’s differences, “… some are smaller, some are fatter, some grow to the left, some to the right, some even have lost some petals. All kinds of observable differences.” As “Where Do The Children Play?” begins to get louder, the most profound statement of the movie is made.

“You see, Harold, I feel that much of the world’s sorrow comes from people who are this [Maude points to a daisy], yet allow themselves to be treated as that [Maude gestures to a field of daisies].”

From there, the film cuts to a shot of a military graveyard. The graves sit atop the soldiers killed in the aforementioned Vietnam War. The scene undoubtedly helped place Harold and Maude in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for being culturally, historically, and aesthetically pleasing. While the song aptly explains the nation’s loss of childhood due to battle, it also comments on other concerns, like suburban sprawl, brought on by the transition of a decade and the advancement of technology.

Book-ending the film are the two exclusive songs. The first song featured is “Don’t Be Shy”. Steven’s distinct voice carries the winsome lyrics, while foreshadowing the element of Maude’s free-spirited philosophies. The song also foreshadows Harold and Maude’s blossoming relationship.

“You know love is better than a song. Love is where all of us belong. So don’t be shy, just let your feelings roll on by.”

A banjo version of “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” closes out Harold and Maude. The original version is played earlier, acting as the unofficial theme song for the picture. In addition, “Miles From Nowhere” and “Tea for the Tillerman” are  included on the soundtrack, showcasing some of Steven’s best and most recognized work.

As Stevens’ lyrics enforce the film’s ideas, one cannot help but graciously accept Maude’s wisdom. At one point Harold says to Maude, “I haven’t lived … I’ve died a few times.” By the end of the film it is clear that Maude provided Harold with unforgettable experiences, allowing him to live, while the audience was provided with an unforgettable film and soundtrack.

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