Home > Reviews > GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE – Rob Simonsen


November 23, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton


Despite the critical and commercial failure of the female-led reboot in 2016, the Ghostbusters franchise that began in 1984 continues to show a surprising amount of longevity. This latest film, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, essentially ignores everything that happened in the 2016 film and is a direct sequel to 1989’s Ghostbusters II. The film stars Carrie Coon as Callie, a single mom who moves with her two precocious kids Phoebe (McKenna Grace) and Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) to a dilapidated house in rural Oklahoma following the death of her father. Phoebe meets and bonds with local high school science teacher Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd), who is investigating unusual seismic activity under the town, and makes friends with a nerdy kid named Podcast (Logan Kim) who… um… makes podcasts. Eventually it is revealed that Callie’s father was Egon Spengler, one of the original ghostbusters, and that he moved to Oklahoma as the town appeared to be the epicenter of significant ghostly activity. Picking up her grandfather’s mantle, Phoebe makes some shocking discoveries of her own, and vows to continue his work and save the world.

As a fan of the original film, I thought that Ghostbusters: Afterlife was a terrific, nostalgic delight. The film is awash in Ghostbusters lore, all of which stems from director Jason Reitman, the son of the original film’s director Ivan, and his obvious love of the property. I won’t go into any more detail right now, but it’s safe to say that I had a big grin on my face throughout the entire film, and the emotional finale had me wiping away some tears. The way the plot intertwines with numerous elements from the original Ghostbusters is excellent, McKenna Grace and Finn Wolfhard are terrific youthful leads, the comedy is fun, the action set pieces are exciting, and the special effects are quite astonishingly good.

The soundtrack for the original Ghostbusters was dominated by its Oscar-winning song by Ray Parker Jr., but it’s original score, by the late great Elmer Bernstein, remains popular with fans of the film. The score for Ghostbusters: Afterlife is by the talented Missouri-born composer Rob Simonsen, who began his career as an assistant to Mychael Danna before scoring films of his own; his most popular and successful titles to date include works such as 500 Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now, The Way Way Back, Foxcatcher, The Age of Adaline, and The Upside. While his music has always been appropriate for each project, Simonsen had always seemed to me to be most comfortable in the skin of an ‘indie drama’ composer, writing light orchestral-pop scores for films that don’t require much in the way of bold orchestral bombast. This is why his score for Ghostbusters: Afterlife is such an unexpected delight – it showcases a much more expansive orchestral sound, while also channeling all the best parts of Bernstein’s original score.

Right from the get-go, Ghostbusters: Afterlife overflows with acknowledgement to the compositional style and thematic content of Bernstein’s score. Simonsen liberally uses the sprightly and jazzy Ghostbusters main theme throughout, often deconstructing its parts to use as separate ideas, including the bouncy ragtime piano riff, and the spooky 7-note melody. What’s clever about this score, however, is that Simonsen actually does more with Bernstein’s score than Bernstein did – whereas Bernstein essentially kept the music with a similar tone throughout, Simonson uses the deconstructed parts of the theme as an action motif, as ghostly suspense, and even as part of the emotional finale. Not only that, Simonsen also repeats several of Bernstein’s iconic orchestration touches, notably the tinkling piano motif that often is heard whenever ghostly presences are lurking, and the ubiquitous 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, and which Bernstein used all over the original film to give it an eerie sound. The ondes is again performed here by Cynthia Millar, who worked with Bernstein dozens of times of the course of their careers.

Many of the opening sequences are mood music, setting the scene and establishing the tone. The first cue, “Trapped,” is at times rather spooky, full of whining ondes martenot tones, piano tinkles, quiet dissonances, and some descending ideas through the strings and woodwinds which have a little bit of a John Williams quality, and are reminiscent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. As the cue develops the subsequent orchestral chaos recalls Bernstein’s music for Gozer and her canine guardians from the end of the first film; the rambunctious action sequence includes a terrific setting of the theme for rousing brass, and then a more downbeat variation during the final seconds.

The theme for “Summerville” – the Oklahoma town to which Callie and the kids move – is upbeat, bouncy, and playful, full of brassy and jazzy textures that adopt a similar tone to Bernstein’s New York piano jazz, but the music clearly insinuates that something is not right. Cues like “Chess,” “Under the Floor,” “Laboratory,” and “Lab Partners” are creepy and mysterious, but not in a sinister way; the music insinuates that the ghostly goings-on in their new farmhouse home are whimsical, perhaps even friendly and playful, and in them Simonsen makes more use of the prancing jazz piano, the ondes martenot, variations on the Ghostbusters main theme, and numerous instrumental textures that create a mood perfect for ghostly hi-jinks. Some of the fluttery woodwinds in “Under the Floor” remind me of James Horner’s ‘nature’ textures from scores like The Spitfire Grill, which is a nice touch indeed.

However, cues like “Research” clearly suggest that there is more sinister activity going on too, and here Simonsen uses a series of dark orchestral textures that establish themselves as a recurring motif/idea for the late Ivo Shandor – remember your Ghostbusters lore! – who owns a number of disused mines in and around Summerville. The way the chords develop is very reminiscent of Elmer Bernstein’s Gozer theme, and this all comes to a head in “Culpable,” wherein Grooberson accidentally releases a ghost from a trap that Phoebe found, and all hell breaks loose. Here Simonson unleashes his horror textures in unashamedly dramatical fashion, directly quoting the Gozer theme with a volley of menacing brass and insistent piano writing.

The action music begins in earnest in “Definitely Class Five,” which underscores the scene where Phoebe and Podcast encounter a metal-eating Muncher ghost. Simonsen’s action has a light comedy tone, but is still terrifically entertaining, with a striking rhythmic core, and a fantastic action setting of Bernstein’s main theme accompanied by the ondes martenot. “Go Go Go” continues the pounding pace with some frantic brass writing, and leads into the brilliant “Trap Him,” which accompanies the boisterous chase around town that sees Trevor driving the iconic Ghostbusters car ECTO-1, Podcast controlling a ghost trap on wheels, Phoebe firing a proton pack from a gunner seat, and Muncher trying to avoid them all. Simonsen sets Bernstein’s main theme on maximum here, and allows it to roar through the cue as a heroic fanfare, underpinned by crashing snare riffs, xylophone runs, and prominent piano lines.

Another fun action set piece occurs in “Mini-Pufts,” which underscores the scene where Grooberson visits his local Wal-Mart but encounters a few items not usually on sale – notably, a couple of hundred tiny Stay-Puft Marshmallow Men, brought to life by all the psychic energy in the town, and worst of all the gigantic devil-dog Vinz Klortho, who wants a new body to possess as the Keymaster. Simonsen initially scores the scene with more creepy ondes textures, piano tinkles, and menacing brass chords, but this eventually gives way to a sense of wonderment mixed with curiosity, and finally a playful scampering electro-acoustic motif that has a tone similar to Jerry Goldsmith’s Gremlins, and is a perfect accompaniment to the Mini-Pufts’s hilariously jolly sadism.

There is a sense of awe and wonderment in “Down the Well,” and then a series of bombastic crescendos for ondes and orchestra in “The Temple Resurrected” as Callie and Grooberson – having been possessed by Zuul and Vinz Klortho – become the new Keymaster and Gatekeeper. Simonsen leans into Bernstein’s Gozer material again as she is fully resurrected, but in response Phoebe and Trevor come up with “The Plan” to stop Gozer, and in acknowledgement of this Simonsen introduces a new heroic theme for Phoebe featuring staccato action rhythms and some fantastic interplay between the different sections, a nervous ball of trepidation with a side of determination. “Suit Up” continues to develop the new heroic theme for Phoebe with rapid string ostinatos that build and become grander and more dramatic as the piece develops. There’s a superb moment of heroic resolve in final minute of the as Phoebe, Trevor, and the other young ghostbusters drive towards Shandor’s mine in ECTO-1 accompanied by a bed of swirling strings, volleys of brass, and spooky ondes martenot sounds.

“No, I’m Twelve” underscores the encounter between Phoebe and Gozer with a huge rendition of Bernstein’s Gozer’s theme, screaming and wailing like only a Sumerian god can, but it is offset by Phoebe’s heroic theme in almost subliminal counterpoint, a testament to the teenager’s bravery in the face of real danger. “Getaway” continues the run of superb action music with more swirling string writing, frenetic brass outbursts, and statements of the main Ghosbusters theme arranged as a heroic fanfare. Simonsen’s writing here is brilliant, especially the elegantly prancing string lines, the nimble and fast paced piano work, and the way he weaves Phoebe’s heroic theme around and within it all.

After a moment of calm and peacefulness in “Callie” – those Horner-esque trilling woodwinds make another appearance – the film’s grand finale occurs in “Protecting the Farm” and “Showdown”. “Protecting the Farm” is an extravagant exploration of all the score’s main elements at their most dramatic – huge orchestra, creative dissonance, ondes martenot, Ghostbusters theme, New York jazz theme, Gozer theme, Phoebe’s heroic theme – plus the score’s only real statement of the brief Ghostbusters Victorious theme from the original movie to accompany the glorious appearance of Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), and Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson), who have arrived to help Phoebe and her new ghostbusters defeat Gozer once and for all. The “Showdown” blends the dramatic and with the emotionally powerful, and again has a hint of John Williams in some of the frantic swirling strings, but most of the narrative drive comes from the blending of Phoebe’s heroic theme with the Ghostbusters theme as it finally becomes clear that the ghost that has been helping her throughout the film is that of her grandfather Egon (Harold Ramis), who appears in corporeal form to guide her and become a ghostbuster for one final time.

The film’s emotional finale comes in “Reconciliation” as the ghostly Egon reconnects with his daughter Callie, bonds with Phoebe, and has a moment of respectful acknowledgement and forgiveness with his friends, before disappearing into the ethereal afterlife. Bernstein’s main theme plays prominently throughout – it’s playful during the interactions with Venkman, Stantz, and Zeddemore, but then becomes super emotional in his interactions with Phoebe and Callie, and builds to a wonderful, celebratory crescendo.

Note: the soundtrack album does not include the original song “Haunted House,” which was written and performed by McKenna Grace, and plays over the first few minutes of the end credits.

I have read some online criticism of Rob Simonsen from some quarters, who felt that he leaned too heavily on Elmer Bernstein’s score at the expense of new material specific to this film. For me, however, Simonsen pitched it perfectly. The nostalgia factor of the project is one of its most appealing elements, with everything from props to lines to cast cameos and plot callbacks playing an important part in linking this film with the beloved original, and Simonsen’s equally affectionate homages allow that aspect to shine just as brightly. Ghostbusters Afterlife is a film intentionally pitched at those of use who fell in love with the original film back in 1984, while also introducing a new set of heroes to carry the story forward. Ray Parker Jr. famously asked “who you gonna call,” and my answer, if it was up to me, would be Rob Simonsen for any and all future Ghostbusters films.

Buy the Ghostbusters: Afterlife soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Trapped (4:56)
  • Dirt Farm (3:29)
  • Chess (1:19)
  • Summerville (1:42)
  • Research (1:53)
  • Under the Floor (3:11)
  • Nice Replica (0:43)
  • Culpable (1:53)
  • Laboratory (3:59)
  • Lab Partners (2:03)
  • Definitely Class Five (2:07)
  • Go Go Go (0:39)
  • Trap Him (3:54)
  • Don’t Go Chasing Ghosts (2:42)
  • Mini-Pufts (3:46)
  • Down the Well (4:14)
  • The Temple Resurrected (2:03)
  • The Plan (3:00)
  • Suit Up (2:09)
  • No, I’m Twelve (2:27)
  • Getaway (2:55)
  • Callie (2:31)
  • Protecting the Farm (5:41)
  • Showdown (2:31)
  • Reconciliation (4:36)

Running Time: 70 minutes 11 seconds

Sony Classical (2021)

Music composed by Rob Simonsen. Conducted by Anthony Parnther and William Ross. Orchestrations by Mark Graham and William Ross. Additional music by Duncan Blickenstaff. Original Ghostbusters themes by Elmer Bernstein. Featured musical soloist Cynthia Millar. Recorded and mixed by Greg Hayes and Shawn Murphy. Edited by Curt Sobel and Lahiru Jay. Album produced by Rob Simonsen.

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