Hal Ashby’s 1971 movie Harold & Maude was many things – a supremely quirky romance, an existential treatise, and one of the most enduring cult movies of all time. But it was above all a celebration of love, and when there was love to celebrate in 1971, Yusuf/Cat Stevens was the man for the job.
It seems impossible now to separate the movie from its soundtrack. And with the soundtrack becoming widely available for the first time, it’s worth a look at how it got there. First off, 1971 was arguably the best possible time to ask Cat Stevens to score a movie. He was just hitting artistic stride, following a tuberculosis experience that threatened his life and caused him to re-think the pop-idol direction he’d been going in.
The first result was 1970’s Mona Bone Jakon, which introduced the more introspective songwriter the world would come to know – a man already torn between the lures of spirituality and sensuality. This would inform his arguable masterpiece, the following year’s Tea for the Tillerman.
Having turned his back on pop stardom (and even sending it up on a Mona track, “Pop Star”) he was about to become a genuine superstar. He already had one strong connection with cinema: His girlfriend was the actress Patti d’Arbanville, who was the subject of both his breakthrough UK hit (“Lady d’Arbanville”) and his first US one (“Wild World,” about their breakup).
Enter director Hal Ashby, a maverick artist in his own right, already known in the film world as a nonconformist and a bit of hippie, which was one reason why Stevens immediately liked him As he said in a 2014 interview, Ashby “looked like a guru, not a proper film director.” Harold & Maude was only his second film, following The Landlord, which was another dark comedy about gentrification in a New York neighborhood; many critics have since noted how prophetic that topic was.
Harold & Maude was adapted from a cult-classic novel by the Australian writer Colin Higgins, and Ashby originally had his eye on a different British singer-songwriter. Elton John was briefly considered not only to score the film, but to play the lead. But Elton already had his hands full – he was scoring the movie Friends, a more conventional teenage romance – and probably not interested in a dramatic lead role, something he still hasn’t done.
In any case, Ashby found his perfect Harold in Bud Cort (whose previous credits read like a catalog of 60s counterculture movies: MASH, The Strawberry Statement, Brewster McCloud), the ideal Maude in the great veteran actress Ruth Gordon, and the perfect songwriter in Cat Stevens. As the latter said in that 2014 Academy salute to Ashby, he immediately related to Harold’s character: “I was dark and mysterious at one time in my life. That’s why I was looking for the light so hard.”
Stevens donated songs from the recent Mona and the forthcoming Tillerman albums, but was requested by Ashby to write some original ones as well. “So I went into Wally Heider’s [studio] in San Francisco and cut these songs that I always wanted to re-record properly, but I never did because he wanted them for the film.” The movie, he said, “captures the emotions [in the songs] so perfectly.”
One thing is certain, however: No matter how diehard of a Yusuf/Cat Stevens fan you are, you probably didn’t own the soundtrack. That’s because there never was one the first time around. Perhaps his label A&M was smart enough to not glut the market with Cat product when he was on the verge of a big breakthrough (Better to save the attention for his next full album, Teaser & the Firecat).
There was a short-lived Japanese release in 1972, that was less a true soundtrack than a Cat Stevens compilation, with some songs not in the movie and neither of the exclusive songs that were. It took filmmaker and musicologist Cameron Crowe to release a soundtrack LP on his own Vinyl Films label in 2007 – but all 2500 copies got snapped up right away, and a used one would run you $500.
The two unreleased songs wound up being the key ones in the movie, and neither was available on vinyl for a full 13 years after the film’s release (they were first on the 1984 compilation, Footsteps in the Dark). “Don’t Be Shy” is not only a vintage Cat love song, it’s the one that plays when the 19-year-old Harold first spots the 79-year-old Maude; the song evokes the elation of love at first sight.
But it’s the other new tune, the supremely joyful “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out” that becomes the movie’s emotional center. The song is first heard when Maude sings it – she becomes the life force that counters Harold’s death obsession – and it reappears as their romance unfolds. Finally, it’s heard at the film’s end, as Harold makes his life-or-death choice. Despite its delayed release, the song’s become one of Stevens’ most beloved.
For many years, fans have assembled their own soundtracks out of the songs’ released versions. But with the reissue of this soundtrack, the familiar songs can finally be heard alongside the alternate and instrumental versions, the crucial bits of dialogue, and the delightful Ruth Gordon vocal. And if you want to sing out, you know what to do.