Can the film harold & maude be considered a cult film?

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Can the film „Harold & Maude“be considered a Cult Film?

That was the question I had in mind when I was doing my research on this definitely strange but at the same time also funny film. I searched for indicators which could contribute to a cult status of the movie, and came to the conclusion that for me personally the music in “Harold & Maude” is definitely a crucial factor.

But it is not only the music which makes this film cult, it is various factors collabo­rating together. In this context it is e.g. the breaking of taboos in the film, the controversial characters, the moral lesson of the film and the various hidden themes the film deals with.  All these factors just mentioned are important in defining “Harold & Maude” as a cult film, but in my opinion, the music is the most important one.

In this paper I am going to focus on the aspect of music within the film, I am going to analyze the role of the music in Harold and Maude and will try to find out in which respect it is important for the characterization of the main protagonists.

First, I will give you a short introduction to the background of the film and will also try to give some details on the development of the music.

Then I am going to focus on the songs, picking out and describing the most important ones. This chapter will also include a characterization of the main protagonists, because of the close relatedness between music and content of the film.

I will then conclude the paper with a comment regarding the importance of the film as a cult movie, which will also compactly sum up the discussed points in the paper.

Main body

Harold and Maude is a film produced by Hal Ashby and published in the year 1971 by Paramount pictures. What is of special importance in regard to the topic of this paper is, that the music/the soundtrack was especially written for the film; it was written by nobody less than Cat Stevens, later also known as Yusuf Islam, who wrote various songs known all over the world, as e.g. ‘Father and Son”. What is also of special interest is, that an official soundtrack of the film was not released with the film but only a few decades later (cf. Schwartz 1).

As already stated, the songs were written especially for the film, so there is a close connection to the content of the film. Some of the songs can even be considered to be written for the various characters, but this point will be discussed later on in the paper.

In the course of the time, it was often stated, that it was precisely the music which made this film a so-called cult movie. Of course there are also several other factors which make this film cult, but in my opinion and also according to various experts the music contributes the greatest part to it (cf. Saravia 1).

The fact that it is not only one factor that makes a film cult, is best summed up by Mark Jankovich, who states the following:

“Rather than attempt to detect the essential element that defines a film as ‘cult', the collection starts out from the presumption that the ‘cult movie' is an essentially eclectic category. It is not defined according to some single, unifying feature shared by all cult movies, but rather through a ‘subcultural ideology' in filmmakers, films or audiences are seen as existing in opposition to the mainstream' […]. In other words, ‘cult' is largely a matter of ways in which films are classified in consumption, although it is certainly the case that filmmakers often shared the same ‘subcultural ideology' as fans and have set out to make self-consciously ‘cult' materials.”(1).

So, from this passage, one could presume that cult movies in general stand in contradiction to typical mainstream Hollywood movies, which is partly right. But generally, there are more points which have to be considered in order to declare a film as cult. These crucial points do not have to be fulfilled all at the same time, but they should definitely all be considered somehow.

These four points are: Firstly, the anatomy of the film, which are its features, secondly the consumption of the movie, which also implies reactions from behalf of the audience and how the audience receives the film. Thirdly it is the economy in which the film is produced, so to say the political background and the financial aspect. Last but not least it is also the cultural status of a film, how it fits its surroundings, namely time and geographical region, which plays an important role for a movie's cult status (cf. Mathijs and Mendik 1).

In regard to the film Harold and Maude these features are mostly fulfilled. Thereby, the strongest aspect is the anatomy of the film, how the film is constructed, in which surroundings the film is set and the way the characters are depicted. Concerning the characters, Harold and Maude are the most important ones, as they are the main protagonists; but also Harold's mother as well as Harold's uncle, are quite interesting characters. The great generation gap between Harold and Maude is not only one of the main themes of the whole movie, but also one of the characteristics which make it a cult film. The fact, that they have a relationship, although there is an age gap of fifty - nine years can evoke different emotions and opinions; but for most of the people it is an absurd thing in everyday life.

Another strange aspect of the film is Harold's pretended suicides. In the film he simulates to commit suicide several times, and he does it very realistically. The motifs for this strange behavior are not very clear for the audience. Either he is doing it because he wants to shock his mother, or because it is funny for him. But definitely one could argue that what he is doing is quite strange. The suicides could also be a comment on the lifestyle of his mother. For him the life of his mother probably seems to be that of a dead person. Life for her had never really begun and will never really unfold. But if he commits the faked suicides only to shock his mother, than it could be seen as kind of a revenge because his mother

implicitly wants to search him a girlfriend, which he totally rejects. First, because he does not want any girlfriend and afterwards because he is in love with the seventy-nine year old Maude.

Maude too, is kind of a strange character. The old lady lives alone and her favorite free time leisure is visiting funerals of totally unknown people and spending time at cemeteries, taking trees from the streets and bringing them back to their initial home, the forest.

This short introduction to the two main characters should give us a little insight and lead us to the major topic of this film, namely the music in connection with the characters.

Music plays an important role, not to say a major role in the film. Many scenes, but mainly the most important scenes are always surrounded by music, in this specific case by songs by Cat Stevens, who especially wrote these songs for the film. In the course of the film there are several songs, some of them are also recurrent ones.

The music is of such great importance because the lyrics of the songs stand in strong relation to the content of the film. There are many songs, but in order to provide a good analysis, I decided to take out only three of the songs, which in my opinion are the most important ones.

The first song, which surrounds the first scene in the movie, is Don't be shy and will now be discussed in detail. In order to have a better understanding of the three songtexts being discussed, they will always be quoted.

“Don't be shy just let your feelings roll on by

Don't wear fear or nobody will know you're there

Just lift your head, and let your feelings out instead

And don't be shy, just let your feeling roll on by

On by

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

Don't wear fear or nobody will know you're there

You're there

Don't be shy just let your feelings roll on by

Don't wear fear or nobody will know you're there

Just lift your head, and let your feelings out instead

And don't be shy, just let your feeling roll on by

On by, on by, etc.”(Sullivan).

This song already introduces the audience perfectly into the topic of the film. The statement “Don't be shy, just let your feeling roll on by” (Sullivan) communicates the message, that love is free, which again implies that there are no boundaries for love; that anyone could stop love, if it is true love.

The song starts right at the beginning when Harold comes down the stairs and begins to prepare something, lights candles, etc. Only afterwards, the audience gets to know that he is preparing for one of his several fake suicides.

The scene alone -without the song- does not mediate any indicators for love, it is rather a gloomy atmosphere, there seems to have happened something sad. Also the fact that Harold is alone in this cold, dark room makes the scenery rather unemotional.

Furthermore, the song expresses the wish that one should not wear fear. If a person would radiate fear no one would notice that person, he or she would just be ordinary and unobtrusive; no one would look at and talk to that person; just like that person would not be there. On the other hand this sentence could also be interpreted otherwise; that one should not be afraid of expressing his feelings in public, also if his/her beloved is someone who does not fit into the norm and who is not typical, as in the example of Harold and Maude.

Without having any foreknowledge on the movie when watching it for the first time, one would not realize the significance of that song, or more specifically the significance of the text of that song, but definitely afterwards. The love between Harold and Maude - if one wants to- is already adumbrated right at the beginning and is made clear then throughout the film; in the storyline as well as in the audiovisual.

The love between Harold and Maude develops slowly, after they meet at a funeral of a person both do not know. They only meet there, because they both have the strange hobby, namely going to funerals of to them totally unknown people. In the beginning both characters are totally different, opposite to each other, except the hobby they share. But with the time they approach each other.

Having partly introduced the two characters, in my opinion there are two songs, which due to their attributes can be ascribed to them.

The first one is I think I see the light, which can be considered Harold's Song:

“I used to trust nobody, trusting even less their words,

until I found somebody, there was no one I preferred,

my heart was made of stone, my eyes saw only misty grey,

Until you came into my life girl, I saw everyone that way.

Until I found the one I needed at my side,

I think I would have been a sad man all my life.

I think I see the light coming to me,

coming through me giving me a second sight.

So shine, shine, shine,

shine, shine, shine,

shine, shine, shine.

I used to walk alone, every step seemed the same.

This world was not my home, so there was nothing much to gain.

Look up and see the clouds, look down and see the cold floor.

Until you came into my life girl, I saw nothing, nothing more.

Until I found the one I needed at my side,

I think I would have been a sad man all my life.

I think I see the light coming to me,

coming through me giving me a second sight.

So shine, shine, shine,

shine, shine, shine,

shine, shine, shine.”(Sullivan).

This song, which recurs twice, simply tells the story of Harold and how he develops in the course of the film. In the beginning Harold likes to be alone, he trusts nobody; especially his mother is not trustworthy for him. Moreover, he does not feel like he suits this world, he does not feel comfortable in this world. He does not see any sense in life and some of the statements in the song can be seen as hints for his suicides as e.g. “This world was not my home, so there was nothing much to gain” (Sullivan). He simply wants to escape the life he is living.

But one day everything changes, when a “girl” comes into his life who changes everything in him. Now he is able to love somebody, to trust somebody and is not sad anymore. The arrival of this new person in his life can be a synonym for the light, mentioned in the song. This anon can be seen as a synonym for Maude, so that Maude is the mentioned girl. One could argue now that he wants this girl or this woman, namely Maude, to stay in his life; forever and ever. A bit strange and also controversial here is, that he calls the nearly eighty year old Maude a girl. Probably, he wants to ignore her age because for him she is perfect, for him it makes no difference whether she is eighty or twenty; it simply does not matter.

The two scenes, where this song appears are quite significant. In the first scene is presented the sad, grey world he describes in the song; he walks alone through a deserted place, no movement and no joy around. Then he sees Maude and his face gets friendly, he expresses happiness. When he is with Maude he can escape his normal life and can simply be himself without being criticized all the time.

The second scene is of even greater importance and the song has a greater significance there. After having been on a fun park, they sit by the sea and Harold gives Maude a present, on which the phrase “Harold loves Maude” (Ashby) is written. Maude tells him that she loves him too, and then throws the present into the sea while saying “So we are always nowhere” (Ashby). After this scene there

is a change of place - but always accompanied by the song- and the depicted scenery is at Maude's home, in the morning. Harold and Maude are lying in the bed and Maude is still sleeping. Harold is just lying next to her, smiling all the time. It is obvious that they previously had sexual intercourse and that Harold still enjoys the thoughts of it and the thoughts of Maude.

These two scenes perfectly reflect the text of the song and depict how the characters - especially Harold - have changed in the course of the film, how the view of the world in Harold's eyes has changed. Now that he got to know the beautiful things in life, he can enjoy living.

The second song, which can be considered as Maude's song is If you want to sing out, sing out.

“Well, if you want to sing out, sing out

And if you want to be free, be free

'Cause there's a million things to be

You know that there are

And if you want to live high, live high

And if you want to live low, live low

'Cause there's a million ways to go

You know that there are


You can do what you want

The opportunity's on

And if you can find a new way

You can do it today

You can make it all true

And you can make it undo

you see ah ah ah

its easy ah ah ah

You only need to know

Well if you want to say yes, say yes

And if you want to say no, say no

'Cause there's a million ways to go

You know that there are

And 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

You know that there are


Well, if you want to sing out, sing out

And if you want to be free, be free

'Cause there's a million things to be

You know that there are (5x)”(Sullivan).

This song is often said to be Maude's song, because it best expresses the attitude Maude has towards life and also towards death.

In the first part of the song it is somehow described how Harold is imprisoned in his own life, but mainly how he is imprisoned in his dominant mother's life, because she does not care about him, but wants to decide everything for him; she even wants to chose a girlfriend for him via a computer dating system (cf. Ashby).

The chorus then describes the arrival of Maude in Harold's life, how she changes his view of the world. She is the one who shows him how to live his life and how beautiful life can be. Maude is presented as a rebel, as the one who loves life. She wants herself and also Harold to escape the cage of the world, she does not want to be imprisoned, and she wants to live her life in a different way. She is of the opinion that there are always a million ways to see things, to do things, and a million things that have to be done before dying; because life is too short to waste it. And, she is also of the opinion that there is a time aloof to live and a certain time to die, which in her opinion is on her eightieth birthday (cf. Ashby).

The last part of the song describes very well, what Harold should do in order to change his life significantly. He must only free his mind and see how beautiful life is; only then he can live his life the way she is doing it. Maude too did not always

have an easy life; she went through hard times, as e.g. when she was in a KZ- camp. She never mentions it towards Harold, but she has a visible tattoo in the form of a number from the times in the camp on her arm.

This song appears trice in the film and all three scenes are of great importance. The first scene depicts the situation, when Harold is at Maude's home for the first time. She shows him how she is living and they talk about favorite hobbies and songs. When Harold says that he does not have a favorite song she goes to the piano and begins to sing her favorite song, namely If you want to sing out. She first sings it alone and then wants Harold to join. This could have a particular significance: Maude already lived her life, she already freed her spirit but Harold has still to learn it and the singing the song together could be a start, a new beginning. One could argue that this is rather a free interpretation, but in my opinion it makes sense, but cannot really be proved (cf. Sullivan). For Maude singing is a way to free her mind, to experience life and she also wants that Harold experiences it in this way, she simply wants the world to become better for him and that he can free himself from the petticoat government of his mother.

The second time the song is played is when Harold and Maude make a trip into nature. They have fun and enjoy their time together; their trip ends at the sea, where Harold tells Maude that this was the most wonderful day he spent and how beautiful she is. Then Maude suddenly begins to speak about the birds, which are there, at the sea; she tells him how free and glorious they are. Through that, she probably wants to communicate how beautiful life could be if he would free himself from everything and would just live for himself. The birds could also be seen as a synonym for herself, that she wants to express that she is totally free and independent and that one day she will fly away, like the birds do. In this context flying away could have the denotation of dying. Because for her dying is another way to free one's mind.

The third scene in which the song is played is at the same time the last scene of the film. After Maude has died because of an overdose she has taken on her eightieth birthday, Harold drives up a deserted road very fast, appearing confused. Suddenly, the scene is interrupted and one only sees the car falling down the

cliffs. Following this scene, Harold is standing on the cliffs with the Banjo Maude gave him, and is playing the song If you want to sing out. On the one hand this scene could be interpreted in the way, that Harold now finally freed his mind, that he is able to live and enjoy his life alone now, without his strict mother, simply without any constraints. On the other hand one could argue that this last scene is just another one of Harold's fake suicides; that he wants to shock everyone once again.


Having analyzed these three songs now thoroughly, I would argue, that the music is definitely an important part of the film. It is not only that the songs are closely related to the content of the film, but also that the music is to a great amount supporting the understanding of the film. The only thing the audience has to do is listen carefully and draw their own connections between the visual and the audiovisual; because then everyone could generate his own interpretation.

In my opinion the music is the most crucial factor that the film has become a cult film. As the music was especially written for the film it perfectly suits the contents.

But also the singer Cat Stevens, who wrote the music for the film, was an important factor for the film in becoming cult. At the time the film was published Cat Stevens was very famous, nearly at the height of his career. He had a big fan base, which also contributed to the fact that more and more people watched the film.

Harold and Maude until today did not lose eminence, still today fan bases with different homepages, discussion forums etc. exist; all of them are of the opinion that “Harold and Maude” is one of the most important, if not the best cult film of all times.

At the time the film was published people thought of it as something abnormal and sometimes also farfetched and disgusting. But probably this fact also contributed to the development to being a cult film; that Harold and Maude was not one of these mainstream love stories.