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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Harold and Maude DVD/Blu-ray Review

Written by Kirk Baird

20-year-old Harold is obsessed with death — particularly his own — until he learns how to really live through a youthful 80-year-old woman named Maude. Theirs was a love story as told in 1971’s Harold and Maude, an avant-garde flop-turned cult classic that gets the deluxe treatment via Criterion Collection on DVD and Blu-ray. 

Harold and Maude is also the template for numerous indie comedies to come: quirky characters, contemporary soundtrack to punctuate emotions, poignant camera shots, taboo subject matter and/or themes. (Director Hal Ashby essentially made a Wes Anderson film while the 43-year-old Anderson was still in diapers.)

It’s the considerable age gap between Harold and Maude that draws creeped-out looks from those who haven’t seen the movie, but Higgins and Ashby handle the relationship with considerable care and warm affection; Harold and Maude makes a strong case that age isn’t necessarily a barrier for what the heart feels. Standout performances by Bud Cort as the sullen and withdrawn youth, and Ruth Gordon as his firecracker love interest effectively sell the premise of the sweet and enduring relationship.

More than an offbeat love story, Harold and Maude packs a wicked sense of humor, poking at contemporary mores, authority figures, and even the U.S. military with pointed observations and amusing insults. It’s also a deceptively simple story, refreshingly unencumbered by goofy side plots or oddball characters on screen for strangeness sake.

Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam) provides the memorable soundtrack, led by “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” and “Don’t Be Shy.” Unfortunately, Harold and Maude soundtrack is not available for purchase — though it can be pieced together through various CD releases. Criterion does include a recent interview with Yusuf about recording the music for the film. 

Among other interesting tidbits: Ashby, pleased with the music as it was, used demo versions of the songs rather than waiting for Yusuf to re-record them. Harold and Maude pointed to a brilliant career for Ashby, who followed up the black comedy with 1970s classics The Last Detail, Shampoo, Coming Home, and Being There, before a vicious drug habit made him persona non grata in Hollywood by the mid-1980s.

Ashby died in 1988 at the age of 59 from pancreatic cancer that had spread throughout his body. But Harold and Maude remains a testament of his talent, the times, and true love.

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