Sounds of Silence: Mike Nichols’s Career in Music

Marc Hogan

By Marc Hogan

Lead News Writer
on 11.20.14 in News

Iconic director Mike Nichols died last night at age 83. He leaves behind a body of work for stage and screen that runs from The GraduateWho’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Working Girl, to Spamalot and Angels in America. A love of music also runs through his career, think about how Simon & Garfunkel‘s songs acted as a character in The Graduate, but also in a variety of lesser-known ways across his films and theatrical productions.

Nichols was one of the few people to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony. Incidentally, his Grammy was for a 1960 comedy album by his duo with Elaine May, Nichols and May, not for music as such, though not for nothing was their record the previous year titled Improvisations to Music.  Below is a selection of musical moments from Nichols’s career, spanning from a song later famously sampled by Jay Z to a spiritual sung by Meryl Streep, with Stephen Sondheim, Ry Cooder and James Murphy along the way. Oh, right: Here’s to you, Mr. Nichols.

1. 1966′s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, “Virginia Woolf Rock” by Alex North.

The score to Nichols’s debut as a movie director, an adaptation of Edward Albee’s 1962 play, features this sly instrumental, which plays memorably as Elizabeth Taylor dances with George Segal. Richard Burton also co-stars.

2. 1968′s The Graduate, “The Sound of Silence” and “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon & Garfunkel

This is it, the soundtrack that has taken on such a prominent cultural place it’s hard to look at from a critical distance. Would Wes Anderson’s movies sound different without it? Would Lorde still be overseeing The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 soundtrack? Notice that the version of “The Sound of Silence” in the movie is different from the radio hit. The lore also has it that the song was originally written about “Mrs. Roosevelt.” And yes, we’re trying to seduce you.

3. 1971′s Carnal Knowledge, “Moonlight Serenade” by Glenn Miller

Garfunkel acts in this one, but so do Jack Nicholson, Ann-Margret and Candice Bergen. The story follows the relationships of Nicholson and Garfunkel’s characters over a 25-year period, starting in the ’40s, so this big-band number is fitting.

4. 1975′s The Fortune, “I Must Be Dreaming” by Stockard Channing

Starring Channing, Nicholson and Warren Beatty. this period piece set in the late ’20s or early ’30s was a commercial failure. But it would be a shame not to recognize Channing’s lovely rendition of this 1927 pop song from the opening titles.

5. 1977′s Annie, “It’s the Hard Knock Life”

Nichols already had a shelf of Tony Awards for plays by the time he produced this hugely popular Broadway musical. There are too many well-known songs to post here — it’s a musical, after all — but this number by the orphans was famously sampled by Jay Z for 1998′s “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem).” A new version of the song also appears in the 2014 film remake produced by Jay Z and Will Smith.

6. 1983′s Silkwood, “Amazing Grace” by Meryl Streep

Exactly what it sounds like: Meryl Streep singing “Amazing Grace.” Co-starring Kurt Russell and Cher, and with a screenplay co-written by Nora Ephron, the film was nominated for five Oscars.

7. 1988′s Working Girl, “Let the River Run,” by Carly Simon

Won the Oscar for Best Original Song. Maybe inspired Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York”? Kidding. Probably.

8. 1990′s Postcards From the Edge, “I’m Checkin’ Out,” by Meryl Streep with Blue Rodeo

More Streep! This country-western tune, written by no less than Shel Silverstein, got an Oscar nod for Best Original Song.

9. 1996′s The Birdcage, “Little Dream” by Nathan Lane

Stephen Sondheim wrote this song specifically for the film, which also stars Robin Williams. “Sweetie, you’re wasting your gum.”

10. 1998′s Primary Colors, “Tennessee Waltz / Don’t Break Our Hearts” by Ry Cooder

As distant as the times that produced this John Travolta and Emma Thompson film based on an “anonymous” novel based on President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign may seem, it’s worth noting that Ry Cooder, fresh off his Buena Vista Social Club success, did the music. “Tennessee Waltz” here is oddly affecting.

11. 2003′s Angels in America, “I’m His Child” by Zella Jackson Price

Nichols directed this acclaimed HBO mini-series, which spawned a Grammy-nominated soundtrack on the Nonesuch label. Here’s the set’s rousing gospel finale.

12. 2004′s Closer, “The Blower’s Daughter” by Damien Rice

Nichols returned to heartfelt acoustic balladry for this film with Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Clive Owen. No, Damien, we can’t take our eyes off those people, either.

13. 2005′s Spamalot, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” by the cast

Yes, Eric Idle’s song originally appeared in the 1979 movie Monty Python’s Life of Brian, but it was “lovingly ripped off” for the hugely successful musical Monty Python’s Spamalot. Nichols directed the original Broadway production.

14. 2013′s Betrayal, score by James Murphy

No recordings have surfaced, but the ever-busy former LCD Soundsystem leader wrote original music for Nichols’s revival of this 1978 play by Harold Pinter. It’s probably only right that this post ends in the sound of — shh.