Home > Reviews > GHOSTBUSTERS – Elmer Bernstein

GHOSTBUSTERS – Elmer Bernstein

ghostbustersTHROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

One of the seminal action comedies of the 1980s, Ghostbusters teamed together three of television’s greatest improvisational comedy geniuses – Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis – in a story about three failed parapsychology professors in New York who, after losing funding for their scientifically-debatable experiments, set themselves up as paranormal investigators catching and containing all manner of spectral nasties across the Big Apple. Things get a little more serious, however, when professional cellist Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) contacts the trio after having a strange experience with her refrigerator, and before long they are knee deep in a fight to save the world from an ancient Sumerian god who may be trying to bring about the apocalypse. The film co-starred Rick Moranis, Ernie Hudson and Annie Potts, and was directed by Ivan Reitman, hot from his success with the comedies Meatballs and Stripes a few years before.

The score for Ghostbusters was written by the legendary Elmer Bernstein, who at the time was knee deep in his “comedy period”, having already scored both Meatballs and Stripes for Ivan Reitman, as well as Animal House, Airplane! and Trading Places. However, despite the success of the film, not to mention the song soundtrack, a score soundtrack was not released until March 2006, when producer Robert Townson and Varese Sarabande finally rectified a 22-year old travesty. It’s always struck me as a little odd that someone like Bernstein, who was capable of writing scores as sublimely beautiful as To Kill a Mockingbird, as powerful and moving as The Ten Commandments, and as rousing as The Magnificent Seven, should have fallen so out-of-fashion by the 1980s, and it’s only thanks to the commercial success and public popularity of movies like Ghostbusters that he was able to emerge from the doldrums towards the end of the decade. The irony, of course, is that in terms of the rest of his career output, Ghostbusters is actually a relatively minor work, and had he written it for a less successful film, it’s unlikely that it would have attained the cult status it did during the 20-year period it was unavailable on CD.

Ghostbusters was written during the period where Bernstein was obsessed with the ondes martenot, an early electronic instrument which sounds like a theremin, but is controlled with a keyboard to give the musician more control over its tone and pitch. As was Bernstein’s raison d’être at the time, the instrument is all over the film, adding eerie textures to the spooky scenes of evil spirits and vengeful deities, and a touch of wistfulness to the hesitant romance between Dana Barrett and Murray’s character, Peter Venkman.

The main theme, the “Ghostbusters Theme”, is a sprightly, mischievous march with a jazzy piano part underpinning a set of hooting woodwinds, oompah brasses and wooden percussion. As a leitmotif for the supernatural high-jinks of the central foursome, it captures their sense of humor and genial irreverence. Its performances in “Walk”, the rock-inflected second half of “Get Her!”, “Plan”, the playful “The Apartment”, the jazzily upbeat “We Got One”, “Halls” and others tie the score together and ensure thematic cohesiveness – but it is curiously under-weight when it comes to capturing the slightly more serious and dangerous aspect of the story in the film’s second half. However, with the exception of brief pieces like “Trap”, “Dana’s Room”, and a little countermelody under the “Final Battle”, the Ghostbusters theme was never really able to turn into anything more adventurous or more scary, which seems to me like something of a missed opportunity and a curious lack of foresight on Bernstein’s part, especially when you consider his talent for crafting eminently malleable themes.

Instead, a haunting theme for wavering high strings and ondes martenot plays under most of the ghostly encounters, in cues like the opening “Library and Title”, “Fridge”, the portentous “Cross Rip”, and the creepy second half of “Zool”. As the film reaches its finale, the Ghost theme becomes much more prominent, appearing strongly in the Bach-esque “The Gatekeeper”, among others. In “Gozer”, when the fearsome demi-god appears on the rooftop of Dana’s Central Park West apartment building, the religioso motif reaches its zenith, and is even augmented by a church organ to add to the spiritual fervor.

There are also a couple of action frenzies worth noting, including the unexpectedly vicious pair “Attack” and “Dogs”, and the previously unheard ‘Ghosts!” cue (which was replaced by a song in the film), which features some clever writing for brass, wooden percussion and more mysterious ondes martenot textures. Bernstein was never really noted as a truly great action music writer, but some of these cues do have a sense of power and depth to them; the harrumphing footsteps of the Stay Puft marshmallow man echo through the percussion section in “Marshmallow Terror”. However, in terms of their effect on the album as a whole, these cues are really too brief to leave much of an impression.

On the other hand, “Dana’s Theme” is a truly gorgeous piece for strings and ondes martenot, one of Bernstein’s loveliest. It is recapitulated in “Meeting”, with a waltz flourish in “I Respect You”, in “Date”, and in the unusually optimistic “Zool”, before its final spectacular statement in the conclusive “Finish”. This cue is the sweeping high point of the score as a whole, especially when it plays in bouncy counterpoint to the Ghostbusters march, adding a touch of Hollywood flamboyance to a scene of a marshmallow-covered scientist rescuing a possessed cello player from inside a statue of a dog-creature.

ghostbusters-songsOnly the Main Title theme and Dana’s theme appeared on the massively successful – and still available – song soundtrack album, which is notable for its inclusion of the classic Oscar-nominated title song by Ray Parker Jr., as well as songs such as “Cleanin’ Up the Town” by The Bus Boys, “Savin’ the Day” by Alessi, and “Magic” by Mick Smiley, all of which feature prominently in the body of the film itself. This is actually one of the few occasions where I would recommend that fans pick up both albums; the songs complement the score very well, and I think it’s against the law to experience anything to do with Ghostbusters without Mr. Parker asking you whom you would like to call on the telephone, should the need arise.

While Ghostbusters does have a lot going for it from a nostalgia point of view, and while anyone who was a kid in 1984 will clearly want to add it to their collection, from a purely musical point of view it strikes me as a little lightweight. Dana’s theme and the Ghostbusters march are familiar and enjoyable, and the Ghost theme does elicit some spooky thrills, but it’s lack of development and innovation is curious, especially for a composer as eminent as Bernstein was. If you’re a fan of the film, this is invaluable; for others, less so.

Buy the Ghostbusters soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • 2006 SCORE ALBUM
  • Ghostbusters Theme (3:00)
  • Library and Title (3:02)
  • Venkman (0:31)
  • Walk (0:30)
  • Hello (1:36)
  • Get Her! (2:01)
  • Plan (1:25)
  • Taken (1:08)
  • Fridge (1:01)
  • Sign (0:54)
  • Client (0:35)
  • The Apartment (2:45)
  • Dana’s Theme (3:31)
  • We Got One! (2:02)
  • Halls (2:01)
  • Trap (1:56)
  • Meeting (0:38)
  • I Respect You (0:54)
  • Cross Rip (1:07)
  • Attack (1:30)
  • Dogs (0:57)
  • Date (0:45)
  • Zool (4:12)
  • Dana’s Room (1:40)
  • Judgment Day (1:19)
  • The Protection Grid (0:42)
  • Ghosts! (2:15)
  • The Gatekeeper (1:12)
  • Earthquake (0:33)
  • Ghostbusters! (1:13)
  • Stairwell (1:14)
  • Gozer (2:48)
  • Marshmallow Terror (1:25)
  • Final Battle (1:30)
  • Finish (2:13)
  • End Credits (5:04)
  • Magic [Bonus] (1:37)
  • Zool [Bonus] (3:12)
  • We Got One! (Alternate) (2:04)
  • 1984 SOUNDTRACK ALBUM
  • Ghostbusters (written and performed by Ray Parker Jr.) (4:03)
  • Cleanin’ Up the Town (written by Kevin O’Neil and Brian O’Neil, performed by The Bus Boys) (2:58)
  • Savin’ the Day (written by Bobby Alessi and Dave Immer, performed by Alessi) (3:21)
  • In the Name of Love (written by Tom Bailey, performed by The Thompson Twins) (3:18)
  • I Can Wait Forever (written by Graham Russell, David Foster and Jay Graydon, performed by Air Supply) (5:07)
  • Hot Night (written by Diane Warren and The Doctor, performed by Laura Branigan) (3:18)
  • Magic (written and performed by Mick Smiley) (4:18)
  • Main Title Theme from Ghostbusters (2:58)
  • Dana’s Theme (3:30)
  • Ghostbusters [Instrumental Version] (written by Ray Parker Jr.) (4:47)

Running Time: 68 minutes 02 seconds — Score
Running Time: 37 minutes 38 seconds — Song Album

Varese Sarabande CD Club VCL 03061046 (1984/2006) – Score
Arista Records 258720 (1984) – Song Album

Music composed and conducted by Elmer Bernstein. Orchestrations by David Spear, Patrick Russ and Peter Bernstein. Recorded and mixed by Robert Fernandez. Edited by Kathy Durning. Score produced by Elmer Bernstein. Album produced by Robert Townson.

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  1. August 8, 2014 at 2:20 am

    Nice review! I love this movie, but don’t remember a ton of the music beyond Ray Parker Jr’s hit song. Interesting fact about the ondes martenot — I’ve never heard of that before! Can’t wait to see what other movies you review!

  2. August 8, 2014 at 1:27 pm

    The ondes martenot is certainly a better fit here than it is in some of Bernstein’s other 80s scores…I was certainly sick of it by the time it cropped up in “Frankie Starlight!”

  3. August 8, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    I agree to some extent, but I really liked Frankie Starlight too!

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