Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence Is Our Warning

A timeless ode to feeling alienated from the world, The Sound of Silence gets more relevant as the years go by, as modern society gets more isolated because of our technology and fast pace living. Everyone is so busy trying to progress to God knows where that we often miss being present with each other, resulting in shallow connections.

Simon and Garfunkel / Paul Simon / Simon and Garfunkel / Art Garfunkel.
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Simon and Garfunkel sang this in the ’60s, way before we found ourselves ridiculously mesmerized by our phones. With a relaxing, soothing rhythm, one may be tempted to overlook the lyrics and simply sway to the word “silence,” feeling like it represents something positive. However, this song views silence as something else entirely.

It Has a Very Peculiar History

At 21 years old, Paul Simon opened his notebook and began jotting down the lines to this song. It was later included in the duo’s debut album, released in 1964, titled Wednesday Morning 3 A.M. However, their album flopped, and the pain of it caused the two to split.

A dated image of Simon and Garfunkel at the recording studio.
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Garfunkel decided he was better off going back to college, and Simon left for England in an attempt to kick off his solo career. But there was one person who didn’t give up on them – their producer, Tom Wilson. He decided to rearrange the music and give it another try.

An Overnight Sensation

Tom Wilson knew the potential of The Sound of Silence. He knew that if he would just change the music a bit, it would do wonders. So, he added electric guitars and drums to the duo’s acoustic version, leading to the final song as we know it today.

An image of a cover for the remixed single of The Sound of Silence.
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The republished song became an overnight sensation, flying to the top of the charts and reaching No. 1 in the Billboard Hot 100 by the start of 1966. This unexpected success took Simon and Garfunkel by surprise. Luckily for us, the duo happily reunited, rekindling a partnership that would go on to gift us with other wonderful tunes.

What Did Paul Simon Mean?

We can try and analyze the lyrics ourselves, but before that, let’s dive into what the musicians themselves said. Art Garfunkel once explained during a live performance: “This is a song about the inability of people to communicate with each other.”

An image of Paul performing on stage.
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It’s evident right from the start: “Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk to you again.” The song’s narrator has no one else to approach but the dark, to whom he confesses his dream, a vision that “left its seed while I was sleeping.”

The Vision of Loneliness

He finds himself walking on a narrow path, alone, when a flash of neon light blinds him and reveals an eerie scene. “People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening.” For Paul Simon, these people, who are seemingly doing normal things, aren’t necessarily engaged and present in the moment. It’s all superficial.

An image of Paul Simon on stage.
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The view is cold and damp, icy and disconnected. The neon lights, characteristic of our shiny and rigid modernity, are a symbol of how people behave today. Instead of the warmth of the fireplace, around which we once huddled together, we now sit isolated, each one on his own.

The John F. Kennedy Connection

According to many listeners, it’s no coincidence that Paul Simon wrote the song around the time of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. In the lyrics, Simon paints the picture of a dazed society full of disheartened people. He mirrored the uncertainty people felt at that time and their inability to react in the face of violent chaos.

A dated portrait of Paul Simon during an interview.
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The song’s narrator issues a wake-up call:

“Fools”, said I, “You do not know

Silence like a cancer grows

Hear my words that I might teach you

Take my arms that I might reach you.”

The Dangers of Incommunicability

Paul Simon attempted to inform his listeners of the looming dangers that prey when people are disconnected from each other. He compares keeping silent to the growth of a tumor, that spreads relentlessly through society until it eventually consumes it.

A picture of Paul Simon during a performance on stage.
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He then offers his guidance and arms, almost as if he was physically healing them from their illness. However, it’s all in vain, and his pleas remain unheard. The narrator realizes that it isn’t easy to shake people out of their indifference.

A Fierce Attack on Consumerism

The final verse of the song deals with Simon’s frustration with consumerism. He attacks the greedy behavior of people who now worship advertisements on neon signs just as they used to worship God.

Simon and Garfunkel perform on stage.
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“And the people bowed and prayed

To the neon god they made.”

Advertisements, all over ” the subway walls and tenement halls” are brainwashing people into purchasing things they don’t actually need. Commercials of more and more goods are simply diverting our attention from what is really important in life – human connection.

TV Was no Longer a Luxury Item

It’s worth bringing up that the early ’60s, when The Sound of Silence was released, were the years in which TV sets became widespread in the U.S., no longer holding the status of luxury items available solely for the rich.

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel posing for a street portrait.
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The middle and working class began using it as well. According to TV Facts, by the year 1962, 90% of households in America had at least one television set: one television set that got the whole family hooked on its flashing screen.

An Anti-War Song

By the time Simon and Garfunkel’s song became a hit, the Vietnam War was raging. It then was adopted by a lot of high-spirited youngsters as an anti-war song, along with other tunes of the time such as Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind and John Lennon’s Imagine.

Simon and Garfunkel perform on stage.
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Nowadays, with social media dividing us even more, many choose to remain passive in the face of inequality and discrimination. It’s a lot easier to sit back and deal with your own stuff. Sometimes, social injustices and wrong doings seem way too complex to deal with.

The Sound of Silence Isn’t a Good Thing

It’s important to note that in this particular case, the “sound of silence” isn’t a good thing. Silence is often treated as something positive: relaxing, calming, and something we should all strive for in our daily lives.

A dated image of Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon during an interview.
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Paul Simon wasn’t treating silence in that manner. Rather, he meant that being silent in the face of absurdity and chaos is something to be discussed. Silence is turning our backs on humanity’s needs.

Who Was Mrs. Robinson?

While we’re at it, let’s dive into another one of Simon and Garfunkel’s songs – Mrs. Robinson. One of the duo’s most endearing compositions, this song was the “musical equivalent of a homework assignment,” according to Paul Simon.

Simon and Garfunkel pose for a band portrait.
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“Mike Nichols called and asked,” Simon explained. “He said he had a book, and he was going to make a film called The Graduate… He convinced us to do the music. The music was supposed to be mostly original music, but what would happen is that in order to fill up a scene, we would take a piece of music and put it there just to hear what music would sound like.”

It Was Made Up on the Spot

“Mrs. Robinson was made up on the spot,” Simon mentioned. “That was originally supposed to be a chase scene, and they wanted guitar music. I was playing… I didn’t even know what I was playing, just riffing on guitar.”

An image of Simon and Garfunkel on stage.
Source: YouTube

The improvisational nature of the song led to the “coo-coo ca-choo” lines. But eventually, Paul focused and put some real thought into the tune, creating a number of verses that captured the lost innocence and affairs depicted in the movie.

It Was Originally Titled Mrs. Roosevelt

Simon & Garfunkel’s song became inseparable from 1967’s movie The Graduate, in which Mrs. Robinson is one of the central characters in the film. Portrayed by Anne Bancroft, Mrs. Robinson seduces the young lead character, Ben (played by Dustin Hoffman).

A video still of Simon and Garfunkel’s performance.
Source: YouTube

Interestingly, Mrs. Robinson was originally titled, Mrs. Roosevelt, and it had little to do with The Graduate’s storyline. When the movie’s director, Mike Nichols, said he needed another song for the soundtrack, Paul Simon responded that they were busy touring and that he only had “a song about times past, about Mrs. Roosevelt and Joe DiMaggio and stuff.” So, when Mike realized Roosevelt had the same number of syllables as Robinson, he asked Paul to change the title of the song.

Joe DiMaggio Wasn’t a Fan

In the song, Paul Simon asks, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” then instantly responds, “Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away.” Joe DiMaggio, the former New York Yankee and three-time MVP was taken aback by the lines.

A dated portrait of Joe DiMaggio standing at the plate.
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He even told Paul he was puzzled during one of their encounters. Paul Simon wrote of the conversation in a New York Times article: “What I don’t understand,” [DiMaggio] said, is why you ask where I’ve gone. I just did a Mr. Coffee commercial, I’m a spokesman for the Bowery Savings Bank and I haven’t gone anywhere.”

He Didn’t Mean the Lines Literally

In response to DiMaggio’s complaint, Paul Simon replied, “I said that I didn’t mean the lines literally, that I thought of him as an American hero and that genuine heroes were in short supply. He accepted the explanation and thanked me. We shook hands and said good night.”

A picture of Paul Simon attending an event.
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Simon was proud of the line, saying that he believes it speaks to society: “The fact that the lines have been embraced over the years as a yearning for heroes and heroism speaks to the subconscious desires of the culture. We need heroes, and we search for candidates to be anointed.”

It Was the First Rock Record of the Year

“Mrs. Robinson” snatched the Grammy for Record of the Year in 1969, and it was the first rock record to do so. To many people nowadays, this may seem pretty reasonable, for the ’60s was a decade packed with rock bands like The Doors and The Beatles, no?

Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon pose backstage at the Grammys.
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Well, yes and no. Weirdly enough, before 1969, the winners of the Grammy for Record of the Year aren’t from the rock genre at all. A few examples:

1960: “Mack The Knife” by Bobby Darin

1961: “Theme From a Summer Place” by Percy Faith

1962: “Moon River” by Henry Mancini

The Song Was the Beginning of the End

Director Mike Nichols believed in the duo, that’s why he reached out to them for “Mrs. Robinson” and the rest of the soundtrack of The Graduate. After the movie and soundtrack’s success, Mike decided to take the relationship further.

Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon pose for a picture.
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Mike Nichols cast both musicians in his next film, an adaptation of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. The plan seemed good enough, that is, until he cut Paul Simon out of the film. Garfunkel, on the other hand, had dreams of acting, and he stayed.

Simon Was Disappointed

In the movie, Garfunkel took on the significant role of Nately the airman. Paul Simon was a bit disappointed at his friend’s lack of solidarity. Ultimately, Garfunkel remained in Rome and finished filming Catch-22 while Paul Simon flew to New York.

Paul Simon speaks during an interview.
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He wrote the songs for Bridge Over Troubled Water, their last album that was released in 1970. The duo split up a while later. Paul’s song “The Only Living Boy in New York” is reportedly based on the period he spent waiting for his musical partner to return so that they could proceed with recording the album.

They Were Never Meant to Play Folk Rock

Thanks to the success of rock tunes like The Sound of Silence, the musical duo will forever be credited with inventing the genre of folk-rock, or at the very least, in helping popularize it in the ’60s and ’70s. However, if Simon and Garfunkel had it their way, it never would’ve happened.

A photo of Simon and Garfunkel on stage during a festival.
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As mentioned before, Sound of Silence was, like the rest of their album, acoustic, but after Tom Wilson remixed it by adding electric guitars, electric bass, and drums, he turned it, and as a result, them, into rock icons.

Garfunkel Choked on a Lobster and Lost His Voice

The duo’s roles were pretty clear. Simon wrote the songs, and Garfunkel sang. So, while Garfunkel didn’t write a lot, he still earned his keep with his hauntingly angelic voice. Truthfully, Bridge Over Troubled Water wouldn’t have been the same if Simon sang lead.

Art Garfunkel performs on stage.
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Unfortunately, for years that voice was gone, and it seemed like it would never return. Apparently, Garfunkel’s voice began to suffer after he ate lobster and choked on a bulky piece in 2010. Several days later, he began having trouble swallowing, and after a medical inspection, he discovered that one of his vocal cords was “stiffer and fatter than the other one.”

In Short, He Lost His Ability to Sing

Garfunkel was torn apart by the fact that he couldn’t sing the way he used to. While he could still hit high and low notes, he couldn’t go mid-level, making him, in his words, “crude instead of fine.”

Art Garfunkel poses for the press.
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Things got so bad that during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Garfunkel could barely hit a note. Shortly after, the duo postponed their tour, then canceled it altogether. In 2011, the singer began retraining his voice at a vacant concert hall, putting on “real show[s] without the people.”

Avoid the Lobster

The following year, after training for 12 months in front of empty chairs, Garfunkel mustered the courage and began to perform small, private shows at a New York art gallery, rehearsing in front of a crowd of 90 or fewer people.

An image of Art Garfunkel during a performance.
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He was still battling his vocal cords, trying to reconnect with his soft and timeless voice. Gradually, he grew stronger and more confident and began playing increasingly bigger shows until, after four years of training, he could finally sing all their songs!

Garfunkel LOVES to Walk

We all know how great it is to exercise and move, but it seems like Garfunkel has taken it to a whole other level. He walks practically everywhere, and according to him, the longer the distance the better. His love of long-distance walking began in the early ’80s when he was touring around Japan and decided it would be a good idea to walk from one end of it to the other.

Art Garfunkel and Kim Garfunkel attend an event.
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Garfunkel enjoyed the hike so much, that he instantly set his sights on a bigger country – America. In the early ’80s, he began his “Walk Across America,” where he hiked from one end of the United States to the other.

Three Treks a Year for 14 Years

Garfunkel didn’t walk across the county in one go but, rather, in various chunks over a 14-year span. In 1997, the singer finally reached his ultimate goal: South Jetty, Oregon. Many fans wondered, why do something so insane? Well, that’s just the kind of man he is.

A photo of Garfunkel performing during a show.
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He celebrated his long walk by almost immediately taking up another LONG walk. In 1994, he began traveling Europe, making plans to walk from Ireland to Istanbul. In 2014, he completed his journey, and immediately set out on a concert tour. The man simply can’t stop!

Garfunkel’s Favorite Reads

The singer lists every single book he reads on his website. He doesn’t necessarily review the books or discuss them in any way. He just posts the title, author, year of publication, month and year he read it, and the page count.

An image of Garfunkel in the cinema.
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Perhaps the oddest book on his list was read in March 1993 – the dictionary. Yup, he literally read all 1,664 pages of Random House’s version of the dictionary. As of November 2016, Garfunkel has read 1,246 books. Unfortunately, he hasn’t posted any new books since.

They Started Out as Tom and Jerry

It’s difficult to picture Simon or Garfunkel feeling ashamed of their names and having ever had to hide behind pseudonyms. However, that’s exactly what the start of their careers looked like. Simon, for example, went through several monikers before settling on his real name.

A dated portrait of Simon and Garfunkel.
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When they started jamming together, they were crafting ’50s style sock-hop teen pop. They were trying to emulate their idols, the Everly Brothers. According to Rolling Stone magazine, the duo’s label felt that their actual names were “too ethnic.” So, Art was named Tom Graph and Paul turned into Jerry Landis, or in short “Tom and Jerry.”

Their Reunion Was a Flop

The ’80s was a hopeful decade for Simon and Garfunkel fans. They almost witnessed a reunion that extended beyond just one concert and straight into the studio. Everyone thought, yes! finally, a new S&G album. Fans were stoked.

A photo of Simon and Garfunkel during a show.
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But then, nothing happened. Apparently, after they successfully reunited in 1981, they began working on their first album since 1970, named Think Too Much. Sadly, it never happened due to the regular “creative differences” issue.

Garfunkel Wanted to Sing Alone

In a 1984 interview with Playboy, Paul Simon explained: “I wanted to be there when Garfunkel’s vocal sessions happened because I knew that if what he did wasn’t all right with me, I wasn’t going to let it go.” Garfunkel on the other hand wanted to sing alone and wasn’t happy when Simon ignored his request.

Simon and Garfunkel perform on stage.
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Simon’s attempts to be the group boss prompted his partner to quit, leaving Simon with a list of songs but no album. He went ahead and recorded them anyway, releasing his work in 1983 as a record called Heart and Bones. But the album flopped because people didn’t want a Paul Simon solo album, they wanted a reunion.

They Played in the Roman Colosseum

In 2014, in front of an audience of 600,000 people, Simon and Garfunkel played their classic tunes in Rome. They didn’t just play in some modern performance hall, they played in the Roman Colosseum! Talk about a show.

An image of Simon and Garfunkel performing in Rome.
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Well, technically, they played outside of it, because you couldn’t fit more than 50,000 people in the perimeter. So, they set up a stage just outside the Colosseum and performed on the streets for their eye-boggled fans.

Simon Was Briefly on the UN Boycott List

Paul Simon has never been a controversial musician. But he has still managed to get the United Nations angry at him for simply performing. In 1987, he found himself boycotted by the UN, because he had recorded his Graceland album in South Africa in 1985.

A picture of Paul Simon during an event.
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In 1980, the United Nations boycotted South Africa because it “embraced apartheid.” So, when Simon flew to South Africa to record his album, the UN took that as him breaking the boycott. Being on their list was bad publicity, and Simon worked hard to put an end to the whole thing.

Garfunkel Once Taught Geometry

Not many people know this, but in 1971, Garfunkel taught math for nine whole months. It happened after the pair split in 1970. Simon went on to pursue a solo career and Garfunkel took on the role of a teacher instead, giving up all musical aspirations.

A photo of Art Garfunkel posing for the press.
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In an interview with The Guardian, the singer elaborated on his sudden career change. He revealed that he began teaching geometry at a Connecticut private school. He insisted on keeping it cool during that time, telling his students: “Yeah, I’ve had ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ but we’re not going to talk about that, we’re going to talk about geometry.”

Their Music Rocked in Cinemas

Simon and Garfunkel’s music was played in several movies over the years. For example, The Sound of Silence was played in the film adaptation of Watchmen. The electric version of the song played as a coffin wrapped in a flag is carried through the graveyard in the rain.

A picture of Simon and Garfunkel during a performance.
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Mrs. Robinson also appeared in Forrest Gump. In an odd scene in which the song shouldn’t actually work but somehow does, it played right at the moment when Forrest shows Lyndon Johnson the bruise on his butt.

Old Friends Made an Appearance

Simon and Garfunkel’s song Old Friends made an appearance in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. The second act of the film shows Ron living in solitude in a lighthouse far away from everyone else. Then, his son decides to visit him.

A promotional still of Will Ferrell and Christina Applegate for the film.
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Together, they rescue a wounded dolphin which they name Doby and ultimately release it back into the vast ocean. At the end of the film, when Ron believes he sees Doby in the water, he runs after him, and in the background, the musical duo’s “Old Friends” plays.

They Jammed on Almost Famous

Simon & Garfunkel’s song America appeared on the soundtrack of Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous. The director licensed the tune to play in the background of a wild story, a tale of a young boy who lands a job writing for Rolling Stone magazine.

A still from the film.
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The teenager ends up following a rock band on the road. Other songs in the film include The Who’s hit Sparks, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s masterpiece Simple Man, the Beach Boys’ fun hit Feel Flows, and Elton John’s Tiny Dancer.

Homeward Bound Played in Wild

Based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of the same title, the film Wild tells the tale of an inexperienced hiker’s dream to undergo a challenging long hike in the hopes of learning something new about herself along the way.

A promotional shot of Reese Witherspoon in the film.
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Actress Reese Witherspoon landed the role of Strayed, whose backstory is revealed to us with flashbacks along the course of the film. In one of those flashbacks, as Strayed talks with her mother, Simon & Garfunkel’s Homeward Bound runs in the background.

Scarborough Fair / Canticle Played in Lost in Translation

Sofia Coppola’s movie Lost in Translation is considered by many to be the director’s masterpiece. The film is set in Japan and stars Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray as two ex-pats who find comfort in each other’s arms.

Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson are in a promotional shot for the film.
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Simon and Garfunkel can be heard during a scene in a hotel bar. A woman can be heard belting out their classic song, Scarborough Fair / Canticle. This song is so beloved that it also appeared on the soundtrack of The Graduate.

“Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” in The Royal Tenenbaums

Even though it’s technically considered a Paul Simon solo, we still added this to the list. The song Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard is played in one of the most unforgettable scenes of the movie The Royal Tenenbaums.

A still from the shoplifting scene in the film.
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In the movie, Royal grows more and more concerned about his son’s overprotective parenting and takes his grandsons Uzi and Ari out to show them how fun life can really be. During their reckless day, they shoplift, hop on the side of garbage trucks, toss water balloons at vehicles and recklessly run into a busy street.

Mrs. Robinson Strikes Again!

Simon and Garfunkel’s classic, Mrs. Robinson, appeared in the recent film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The song plays on the radio of Cliff Booth’s ride in the film as he watches a Manson Family member cross the street.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Quentin Tarantino, and Brad Pitt behind the scenes of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
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Quentin Tarantino ingeniously gender-flipped the record’s original context from the movie The Graduate, where an older woman seduces a younger fellow, to suit Cliff’s characterization of a middle-aged man looking for twenty-something-year-olds.

Baby Driver Starred in … Baby Driver!

Given that the film was named after it, the musical pair’s song Baby Driver was guaranteed to play on the soundtrack of Edgar Wright’s thrilling musical Baby Driver. Some viewers believed that it didn’t always fit the film’s pace.

A photo of Baby Driver behind the scenes.
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Its slower melody didn’t always fit in with the hard rock records that played over the film’s action scenes; however, it was absolutely perfect for the end credits following the tear-jerking final montage.