The Endless Love of Harold and Maude
The Cat Stevens soundtrack to the beloved cult rom-com finally gets an official release
My father’s interest in modern music pretty much stopped in the mid-’60s with Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass.
So I was more than a little surprised to learn that he’d smuggled a cassette tape recorder into a theater to record the songs from the film Harold and Maude. Wow, I thought, my dad likes Cat Stevens?
The reason for his subterfuge was that no soundtrack for the film existed. Harold and Maude, released in 1971, was what used to be called a “cult film” in those far off days before VCRs and streaming services. Colin Higgins’ black comedy was a May-December romance — well, maybe more like a February-December romance — about Harold, a wealthy, depressed 19-year-old who stages mock suicides to garner attention, and Maude, a free-spirited 79-year-old who views each day as another opportunity to discover something new.
VIDEO Harold and Maude original trailer
The film’s anti-authoritarian/anti-war sentiment was certainly in keeping with the era, but the romance–even though discreetly presented (after test screenings, a scene of the two kissing was cut)–was a step too far for some, and Harold and Maude fared poorly on its initial release. An executive at Paramount, the studio that released the film, was even told by representative from Time that the magazine was doing them a favor by not reviewing the movie.
But the film didn’t disappear entirely. There was enough interest in Harold and Maude for it to keep surfacing at repertory cinemas, especially in college towns, becoming the kind of film you’d rush out to see if you knew it was playing because you didn’t know if you’d ever get another chance. Then VHS, DVDs, Blu-rays, and streaming meant you could always have the film at your fingertips.
But access to the soundtrack lagged behind. Stevens hadn’t wanted one to be issued; with some of the songs also appearing on his albums Mona Bone Jakon and Tea for the Tillerman, he feared a soundtrack might be mistaken for a greatest hits collection, and it was too soon in his career to release one of those. A soundtrack was nonetheless released in Japan in 1972, unapproved by Stevens, and a mishmash of film and non-film songs. Some thirty-five years later, a 2007 vinyl only limited edition release crept out, soon to be found reselling on online auction sites for hundreds of dollars. Last year’s Record Store Day vinyl soundtrack, with just the nine Cat Stevens songs, can still be found online at a more affordable $50. And now, just in time for Valentine’s Day, comes the most widely available version of the soundtrack yet to be released.
Along with the previously released material, Stevens wrote two songs specifically for the film. “Don’t Be Shy” plays over the opening credits and sets the template for the rest of the film’s music; acoustically-based, mostly light-hearted numbers that reflect the ultimately upbeat sentiments. The song also sets up the film’s first joke. “Just lift your head, and let your feelings out instead,” Stevens urges as Harold is seen making preparations for something in the drawing room of his stately home. The shock comes when, as the final notes play, Harold kicks away the stool he’s standing on to hang himself. For a few moments, there’s nothing to hear but the squeak of the rope as his body sways, leading first-time viewers to wonder, “I thought this was supposed to be a comedy?” Then comes the punchline, as Harold’s mother walks into the room, observes his hanging body, and, in the middle of making a phone call, disdainfully remarks, “I suppose you think that’s very funny, Harold!”
“I Think I See the Light” is similarly used to good effect. It comes after one of Harold’s mock suicides which terrifies his would-be computer date, who shrieks in horror as she sees him apparently set himself on fire. As Harold breaks the fourth wall and looks directly at the camera, the song’s bright piano chords underscore the devilish delight as a smile spreads across his face.
With most of the songs not being written for the film, they don’t speak directly to the action, but serve as a counterpoint to it. Director Hal Ashby so loved Stevens’ work, he began matching his songs to the film’s footage even before Stevens agreed to work on Harold and Maude, which is undoubtedly why the music works so well.
“On the Road to Find Out” accompanies scenes of Harold buying a hearse at a junkyard, the music becoming more buoyant as he races down the road in his new purchase. The moment when the gospel choir bursts into a full-throated cry in “Tea for the Tillerman” provides a joyous backdrop as Maude jauntily departs from a funeral, the only one of the mourners bearing a yellow umbrella.
With its somber theme, “Trouble” is well-suited to the film’s darkest moment. And the other original number gives the film its optimistic theme. We first hear “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out,” as Maude is teaching the song to Harold, singing along to a player piano (a self-playing piano; the joke is that at first you think Maude is playing it). It’s the kind of song that’s so irresistible, you can’t wait to join in, a song that’s tailormade for campfire singalongs (and should the mood strike you, the lyrics are helpfully provided in the accompanying booklet). It’s a song that revels in all the possibilities of what you can do, what you can be, and the one song you can’t imagine not being in this film.
In order to fill out the album, the soundtrack adds a few pieces of incidental music and some dialogue. It’s somewhat distracting, especially when the dialogue overlaps the beginning of “Where Do the Children Play?”; it would’ve been far preferable to have included the bonus tracks from the 2007 edition.
But it’s a welcome release nonetheless, a fine tribute to a film that sweetly mocks convention, delights in absurdity, and celebrates the sheer joy of being alive.
AUDIO: Harold and Maude Soundtrack (full album)
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