"Most People Can't Hear Me with the Whole Orchestra Playing"

Ask anyone under thirty—we live our lives to music. At once abstract and deeply telling, it unlocks our emotions in ways no other medium can, and some of the finest movie moments owe their power to the marriage of music, motion and the quivering heart.

Great movies and great music have gone hand in hand since the decline of the silent era, and it's hard to look back on a beloved film without humming a few bars. Often it's the original score that moves us, like the majestic sweep of Maurice Jarre's orchestra in Lawrence of Arabia, the Gothic nightmares of Danny Elfman's midnight melodies. Sometimes it's a popular song created for the film, like "Over the Rainbow" for The Wizard of Oz or "Stayin' Alive" for Saturday Night Fever. Occasionally the magic comes from breathing new life into older tunes: can anyone hear "As Time Goes By" and not think of Casablanca, "Also Sprach Zarathustra" without 2001?

And sometimes the music goes on and has a life of its own.

You are now humming the song in your head

Ghostbusters' infectious rock single is as much a star of the movie as the actors. Not only did Ray Parker, Jr.'s memorable tune dominate the airwaves and the Billboard charts, it engraved itself on the popular consciousness for all time; on the level of purely anecdotal evidence, your correspondent cannot sport his logo-festooned t-shirts without passersby asking him who he's gonna call.

(I've learned to just smile and nod in appreciation. Shouting back sounds dorky.)

But beyond that, and indeed beyond the whole pop soundtrack, Ghostbusters boasts a long-overlooked score by Oscar-winner Elmer Bernstein, waxing by turns playful, soulful, spooky and strange. Bernstein's relationship with Ivan Reitman since Animal House had proven fruitful, and the '80s found the composer forging a new career in comedy—scoring not only Meatballs and Stripes for Reitman, but the genre-redefining Airplane!, the big hit Trading Places and the no-doubt-respectable Going Ape! By 1984, even his best-known horror scores slouched toward the funny bone, with recent credits on An American Werewolf in London and an amusingly descriptive "Scary Music by" credit on the groundbreaking Thriller.

Underappreciated but completely essential

Bernstein's appropriateness for Ghostbusters, though, stemmed not from his comedy chops but his versatility. With The Man with the Golden Arm, The Ten Commandments, The Magnificent Seven, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Escape under his belt, he could wrangle any genre with aplomb, and the Ghostbusters score reflects his diverse sensibilities, from the jazzy metropolitan bounce of his heroes' theme to the epic bombast of his climax. And just as he'd done with the thrills-and-chills death knells of Airplane! and the military marches of Stripes, Bernstein scored to the comedy's target, rather than the comedy itself. As he told CinemaScore magazine: "The interesting thing about Ghostbusters, as a film, is that it walks a very fine line… I do not denigrate the film. I don't try to do anything hokey, I don't try to make the music funny. My theory is that if the comedy is working in the film, let the film do the comedy, and let the music get behind the emotion or the action, so as to add another element."

This quote doesn't just sum up Ghostbusters' score—it sums up Ghostbusters itself, a movie that owes its magic to its masterful blending of styles. In this chapter, we'll examine both the score and the songs, and see how the music enhances the moments on screen—and even creates a few of its own.

"Right Off the Top of the Scale"

The Columbia Pictures logo lingers onscreen a good nineteen seconds to accommodate the slow buildup of Bernstein's opening. (The first of many slow buildups in the film, as we know.) The first note syncs with the starburst of the figure's torch, using the score as a sound effect. When music mimics the onscreen action, it's called 'mickey-mousing'—think of an orchestral plunk-plunk-plunk synched up to a cartoon character's slinking steps. Even by 1984, that trope had been beaten to death enough to, usually, signal comedy.

In comes the ondes Martenot, an electronic instrument similar to, and often mistaken for, a theremin; the very suggestion of theremin on film calls up sci-fi fare like The Day the Earth Stood Still or Forbidden Planet (which also, ironically, didn't actually employ a theremin). The distinctive sound is inextricably linked with the eerie, as sure a signifier as drumbeat marches for war movies, and as such our mood is established before the movie's even begun.

For the first shot, Bernstein concocts a shimmering mix of off-kilter tones, suggesting pressure building, something bubbling below the surface. The burst of pigeons provides a flutter of pseudo-percussion, and when the camera settles on the lion statue, Bernstein deploys five ominous notes—the first statement of his 'evil' theme.

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Establishing themes early is important, as Bernstein will be making extensive use of leitmotif. The leitmotif technique ties distinct and recurring themes to central characters or ideas, then repeats and transforms those themes to tell the story. The classic examples include Richard Wagner's opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, Sergei Prokoviev's symphony Peter and the Wolf, Erich Wolfgang Korngold's groundbreaking compositions for The Adventures of Robin Hood and John Williams's epic Star Wars score. Today, we hear it primarily in 'genre' cinema, such as Howard Shore's The Lord of the Rings, tying tunes and instruments to dwarves and hobbits, each rooted in the ancient cultures of Tolkien's world and our own. Or the Harry Potter scores, their themes expanding, complicating and adapting with the story—not to mention revolving directors and even composers. Or any number of superhero scores, tooting the franchise fanfares as their heroes streak across the screen.

Bernstein was a confirmed fan of leitmotif, particularly for his big-budget work—The Great Escape, for instance, assigned themes to individual prisoners, while The Magnificent Seven used motifs to track the ups and downs of the galloping cowboys and the conniving Calvera. Given the sorts of films the technique turns up in, Bernstein's use of leitmotifs doesn't just help Ghostbusters tell its story—it imparts the scale of the story being told.

The music for the library interior treats us to a fantastic, genre-movie feeling; indeed, Bernstein would later provide a similar score for the early moments of the sci-fi thriller Slipstream.

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Doesn't this sound familiar? — buy the soundtrack

Inside the library, the orchestra provides airy, high-pitched dread. Alice's walk downstairs is more or less mickey-moused, her steps in time with the music. The effect is quietly comic; more overt is the woeful ondes Martenot for the floating books, reinforcing spookiness as it softly references the tune played upstairs. We'll call this motif the 'haunting' theme.

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By the third minute the score's already using motifs to create new meanings. After the catalog cards spew and Alice bolts, the music restates its themes, exchanging ethereal imbalance for a new urgency. A string ostinato drives Alice forward. Danger is imminent.

Then she screams. The orchestra offers no resolution; even the uncut edition of Bernstein's score shows nothing beyond a minor-key crash. It's a precarious musical position, leaving us stranded.

Until another piece of music steps in to save the day.

"Pick Up Your Phone and Call the Professionals"

You can't talk about Ghostbusters without "Ghostbusters". The aural equivalent of the iconic no-ghosts logo, the Ray Parker, Jr. single didn't just sell the movie, it practically was the movie. Famous songs from films were nothing new, but few had the audacity to chant the name of the flick—or, better yet, get the audience to chant it.

The song would top the Billboard charts for three weeks and land an Oscar nomination. A promotional video, directed by Reitman, would establish the now-inescapable trend of movie clips in music videos. (1983's Flashdance got there first, with its famous dance sequences easily adaptable to the MTV format; Ghostbusters applied this idea to a film not built around music, and the world quickly followed.)

The legal controversy surrounding the song's similarity to Huey Lewis and the News' "I Want a New Drug" need not be discussed too deeply here. Like any film, Ghostbusters is the product of its influences and predecessors, and its theme song is no different. Fans have noted similarities to other, older songs, including "Save Me" by E.T. Mensah and his Tempos, "Let it Out (Let it All Hang Out)" by the Hombres and "Pop Muzik" by M, without a single lawsuit filed. In any case, the song's roots are less interesting than its effects.

Parker cites a cheesy late-night commercial as his jumping-off point, recalling its similarity to the ad our heroes produce. "Ghostbusters" is what the advertising industry calls 'a call to action', speaking directly to its audience. The call-and-response format invites participation while skillfully avoiding the dearth of rhymes for the film's title—in fact, Parker himself never actually says the word.

Indeed, the whole song is an exercise in problem-solving, meeting the unusual needs of the film while creating a classic in its own right. A traditional rock beat with a sax scores the verses, which Parker more raps than sings—just hip-hop enough to be cool without straying from the friendly Top 40 feel. An urgent, siren-like jangle marks the "I ain't 'fraid" bridges, and there's two jittery breaks, one punctuated with ghoulish eighth notes on the synth, one with startling percussion. This infusion of action and horror elements in earworm pop mirrors the film's mix of 'genre' cinema with comedy.

Parker layers on additional elements as the song progresses—a scratchy guitar to comment between verses, a looming synth for the background, a triumphant fill to back the final call-and-responses—just as the film consistently builds to new heights of comic lunacy. Lyrically, Parker eschews a plot recap and simply spins spooky hypotheticals, mere "if"s with a warning "when" only at the end, when, again, excitement is highest. The song not only mirrors the structure of the movie it's plugging, it fills our minds with possibilities and makes the payoff "Ghostbusters!" each time. All this and it's calculatedly catchy to boot.

Reportedly, big names like Lindsey Buckingham and (ironically) Huey Lewis were approached to do the theme song, but the filmmakers struck gold at the eleventh hour when Parker came through their door. He had, as Zeddemore might say, the tools and the talent. His persona was never hipper-than-thou, nor steeped in the now-clichéd excesses of the MTV set. (Reitman toyed with this image in the music video: yes, Parker was handsome and not without moves, but it's easy to be the coolest guy in the room when your backup dancers are comedians in janitor outfits.) An experienced session guitarist who'd either played with or written for everyone in the industry, encouraged by Stevie Wonder, mentored by Barry White, Parker made the perfect pitchman: something for everyone, likable but not overbearing, direct without being aggressive. As Arista Records president Clive Davis recollects, "he didn't consider himself a great singer. Maybe he wasn't technically an outstanding vocalist, but there was a charm about him that came through effortlessly in his singing."

His biggest successes outside "Ghostbusters" share the song's earnestness and good-humored innocence. "Jack and Jill", a funk/R&B tune, marries simple nursery rhyme and fairy tale imagery with a silky, easy feeling. Then came a pop period: "You Can't Change That" is direct to a fault, an almost-conciliatory love song from a speaker eager to cover his bases. Next out of the gate was "A Woman Needs Love", a well-meaning instructional not unlike his later New Edition hit "Mr. Telephone Man"; the video features Parker doing his best to play it suave, white suit and smooth jazz. "The Other Woman", whose impish rock gels with "Ghostbusters", relates the mishaps of two-timing with comic insouciance, as the speaker laments the mess born of his own mischief—he knows he's caught, and has been a bad boy. It's all a lark with Parker, each hit polished and produced, eschewing edge for affable cheer and winking diversion. "People have enough problems," he told journalist Bill DeYoung in a profile. "Somebody's got to make those songs about politicians and all that stuff; I just don't feel that."

At any rate, there was something cosmically right about Parker's contribution to Ghostbusters. Like the film, the song had to happen quickly—Parker got the call two days before deadline. The solution was to keep it simple. "It's just single lines that really fit together well," he told Mix magazine, recalling the straightforward orchestration. "It was one of those days when everything came together—bang, bang, bang—and it didn't seem like I could do anything wrong." Sounds like how the movie got made.

The song's first appearance in the film is a tease: we see the logo and the title, get our snatch of music and we're out of there. This was all the filmmakers had asked from prospective songwriters—indeed, Bernstein had already scored the two later scenes where the song eventually wound up. But Reitman, ever the judge of potential, was so fond of Parker's demo that he commissioned a full piece. The rest is history.

"Listen! You Smell Something?"

After the busy beginning, the soundtrack rests for a while. Venkman's introduction goes largely unscored; he hardly needs help establishing his personality. Only a little piano trill joins the scene, to build tension before a shock, or to mock the idea of doing so. When Venkman and Jennifer confer in private, the score delivers an incomplete statement of what will become Dana's theme. The flicker of romance is here, but not the full package. And the universe knows it, too, shoving the tune aside when Stantz barges in.

On the library steps we meet Bernstein's main theme, his heroes' theme, bouncy, twinkly piano and jazz. It's very New York, lending the film an older, classier feel—like something out of a metropolitan screwball comedy, perhaps, or one of the black-and-white paranormal funnies that were Dan Aykroyd's muse.

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I know some people call this the main theme but that just confuses things — buy the soundtrack

Inside, we meet Spengler, hard at work; Bernstein gives us some amiably eerie notes before being interrupted with the slam of a book. Antics are about to ensue.

Down in the stacks, Bernstein mixes genres like pigments. That is the composer's privilege in Ghostbusters—the privilege of play. While the film itself remains deadpan, the score provides an outlet, a reminder that it's all for laughs; Bernstein gets to do what even Bill Murray does not, and call your attention to the joke. He starts with something suitable for sneaking—indeed, it's awfully similar to a cue from his earlier score for Trading Places, the introduction to the shifty Clarence Beeks.

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Trading Scores? Ghostbusters vs. Trading Places — buy the score

From here, the score ably transitions from playful tension to outright wackiness to the otherworldly ondes Martenot to more comic frivolity, shifting its tenor as quickly as the actors do. We're establishing tone—or tones, in Ghostbusters' case.

Along the way, the score has a little fun with structure, too. Sometimes Bernstein obeys his own rules: the music is abruptly cut off by the falling bookshelf, another interruption in a burgeoning tradition. And sometimes he leads himself in circles, mimicking the frustrations of the characters: the approach to, and discussion with, the library ghost is filled with little would-be themes and musical ideas that don't go anywhere. Eager to impose order, the guys make a plan, and step out in unison to confront the ghost. So Bernstein makes his score purposeful, structured. Leading us to action. Then the ghost strikes back, and it all goes to hell.

The instant the monster pops out, "Cleanin' Up the Town" by the Bus Boys kicks in, just to emphasize that all is meant in good fun—so crucial was this message that an initial design for the creature was rejected as too scary. (It found employment to fine effect in 1985's Fright Night.) The characters are screaming long after we've stopped, and the music lets us laugh at the protagonists, not with them. It's a good joke on them, and on us for jumping in the first place.

As they retreat back to campus, Bernstein provides a low, dirgelike singsong version of his heroes' motif, as if trying to revive their theme. It doesn't work.

The next few minutes are largely dormant, musically. Air Supply's gloriously mawkish "I Can Wait Forever" is relegated to a brief clip on a workman's headset; conspicuous by its near-absence, it's probably the most quintessentially 1980s piece on the soundtrack, and its marginalization implies that Reitman preferred a more classical sound. (One shudders to think where the song could have ended up, in less judicious hands—Venkman pulling Dana out of the rubble, perhaps.)

Bernstein rejoins the picture as Venkman lays his scheme out for Stantz. Graceful, ascending tones, a triumphant little fanfare—and presto, we're off to the meat of the movie. As the guys take their first steps toward becoming Ghostbusters, the heroes' theme kicks in, slow but sure. When they mull occupying the firehouse, Bernstein even turns the theme into a question.

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It's a versatile theme. When Central Park West is revealed, we hear it as a grand and malevolent sting. The Ghostbusters will have dealings there before long. And for the noblest of reasons…

"I Have to Go to Rehearsal Now"

Dana's theme is the great unsung beauty of Bernstein's score. Lush and romantic, like something out of time, it's worthy of the symphony orchestra that employs her; even the ondes Martenot seems to have subsumed its usual spooky overtones and succumbed to the dance.

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What a woman — buy the soundtrack

Curiously, the instrument's creator, Maurice Martenot, was a cellist himself, and sought to replicate the cello's expressiveness in his electronic invention. It's as if it was meant for Dana all along.


The melody strongly echoes Bernstein's grand theme for the Tennessee Williams melodrama Summer and Smoke, but older, wiser, with a hair less bombast.

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Ghostbusters vs. Summer and Smoke — buy the score

Moreover, the suite as a whole is eerily reminiscent of Bernstein's theme for woman-warrior Taarna in Heavy Metal (an Ivan Reitman production)—less militaristic, but with the same aspirational qualities, invoking high flight, brave skies. The two even share the same warbling ondes Martenot, the same anticipatory pause before the full orchestration sweeps in. The point is clear: as Venkman will find out, Dana is a woman to be reckoned with.

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Light snippets from Heavy Metal — buy the score

Unsurprisingly, the strings carry us through this introduction, as Dana crosses Central Park West, cello in hand. Even the sound design reflects graceful musicality; the car horn seems perfectly in tune and in rhythm.

And then Louis shows up and interrupts everything.

When supernatural forces announce their presence in the kitchen, the score builds a low howl and layers on a vaguely electronic sound to enhance the sensation. Dana's glimpse inside the refrigerator introduces a new motif: a high-pitched, choral-sounding slide up the scale. This theme will come back to haunt us, each time marking what we'll call, in a word or two, 'impending weirdness'.

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Oddly, this is not found on the score album

From here we cut to Ghostbusters headquarters to celebrate the not-so-grand opening. The score dutifully coughs up hopeful, ascending notes, just as in Venkman's pitch to Stantz—but the instrumentation sounds weak, tinny, reflecting the ramshackle state of affairs. An optimistic statement of the heroes' theme follows, then slows and winds down, as Venkman reviews the dearth of customers. It's a dull, dim day in the firehouse, and when Dana enters, her theme is a strain of cello clarity in a sad fog. She is needed in that office. We can actually hear Venkman perk up.

Diegetic music: music that is heard by the characters… or even played

Malevolent orchestration recasts the heroes' theme once more, as Venkman sallies forth to his job. He then joins in on the score himself, playing an irritating trill on Dana's piano as if to mock Bernstein's own high-pitched keyboards. This elegantly ties Venkman to an instrument—the piano, as heard in the heroes' theme—to mirror Dana's cello. (Venkman picks up a cello in the sequel, as he tries to win Dana back—too little, too late.)

Tinkling piano recurs—an extension of what Stantz either heard or smelt on "Listen! You smell something?"—while Venkman uses, of course, the ghost sniffer. And just in case we missed it, the film employs almost the exact trill Venkman played as he slowly, slowly opens the refrigerator door—to reveal… absolutely nothing.

Back in the living room, Venkman shifts his tone, and so does the score.

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We'll hear this again when he thinks that she's dead

The doleful strings shoot him down, and the cue as he laments sounds curiously Old World in its despondency, conjuring a jilted lover sipping wine in a Parisian bar. Still, he's down but not out; we hear small, hopeful tweets of the heroes' theme, as he promises her, "I'll prove myself to you."

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"I Think He Can Hear You"

The Ghostbusters regroup for a sumptuous Chinese feast, with the Thompson Twins' 1982 hit "In the Name of Love", droning dismally, diegetically. An unglamorous evening.

"Cleanin' Up the Town" resurfaces when it's time for action. Bernstein prepared a rock version of his heroes' theme for this and indeed many segments, complete with electric guitar, percussive slams and triumphant brass. But Reitman replaced all such cues with songs, believing (not unfairly) that the composer's strength was in the traditional symphonic sound. The Bus Boys song lends a swanky swing, a retro big band feel for the old hotel. Excitement is in store.

And something spooky, too, we know—for by now, Bernstein's patterns have become familiar. Mock tension. Some puttering around as the Ghostbusters explore. The usual.

Slimer doesn't get a theme of his own; the music in his scenes isn't about him, but how people react to him. The film foreshadows his appearance with glittery strings in an ascending six-note crawl, not quite a resolved pattern: mystery is afoot, or perhaps afloat.

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Once we've met the little fellow, the score leans comedic instead. The tail end of a boisterous action cue on the crash of the dessert cart. Near-mickey-mousing as Spengler and Venkman roam the hallways. For Venkman's last stand, an accelerando rumble. Trifles, really.

Bits and pieces of the heroes' theme play as the Ghostbusters reconnoiter downstairs. The score remains respectfully silent as Spengler warns against crossing the streams (life stopping instantaneously, indeed), but subtly restates the theme on "Ray, take the left, Egon, take the right." It's low and slow and unfinished, but it's there. A plan is coming together.

The score plays narrator again when the trap opens; expectant notes ascend the scale, in stair-stepping alternation, culminating in a glorious burst as the trap shuts up again.

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We'll hear something like this again; Ghostbusters continually revisits its own musical ideas. For instance, we're about to hear the damn theme song again…

"This is Casey Kasem. Now on with the countdown."

After the lively "Ghostbusters" montage, the score re-emerges to conclude Zeddemore's successful interview: Bernstein congratulates the newest Ghostbuster with a mock-brassy heroes' theme, complete with a cute little flourish at the end to get us to Lincoln Center.

One of the finest musicians in the world

It's only fitting that a symphonic score sounds especially lovely here. Dana approaches Venkman with a fluttering, bubbling statement of her theme, as if her heart is quickening. The motif re-emerges when Venkman presses his advantage ("I respect you as an artist"—and in comes the orchestra). The violinist asks who Venkman is—Dana says he's "just a friend." The score quickly bursts into triumphant expression as if to respond, oh, no, he's not. It becomes, improbably, a waltz, a celebratory dance on the order of Bernstein's Oscar-winning score for Thoroughly Modern Millie.

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Ghostbusters vs. Thoroughly Modern Millie — buy the soundtrack with some Bernstein score

It's completely in character and yet out of time, a soaring rush of romance in New York. The next surge of score will turn darker.

"Incredible, Even Dangerous Proportions"

Night falls. Lightning flashes. The long-dormant evil motif swells. Bernstein, who got his start scoring Cecil B. DeMille, is going grandiose.

1980s icon Laura Branigan contributes "Hot Night", just in case the score wasn't portentous enough: the sensuous rhythm and steamy, dangerous lyrics make not only an omen for the scenes to come, but an ironic counterpoint to the presumably-cooler night transpiring in Louis's apartment. (It's also the first movie credit for now-legendary songwriter Diane Warren, who would go on to six Oscar nominations. As for Branigan, 1984 would also welcome her megahit "Self Control", a slower, sultrier tune in the same mold, concerning fending off the creatures of the night. Terror dogs, perhaps.)

Dana foregoes the hot night, but during her phone call, the music turns intrusive, voyeuristic, all the instruments taking turns at the peephole—a woodwind here, percussion there. (Sharp ears will spot snatches recalling the prologue to Thriller, where Michael Jackson tells his date he's "not like other guys".)

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A thrilling comparison: no one's gonna save her from the beast about to strike

Then Zuul attacks, and Bernstein lets the orchestra rip. Bells, rumbles, frenzied strings, sharp chords, like something out of an old monster movie. When we return to the roof, the evil theme resurfaces in its most baroque, belligerent statement, its high sonic stabs piercing the heavens.


Down below, Louis's party continues with its heat-themed dance tunes: The Trammps' "Disco Inferno", already a tad hoary by 1984, makes the perfect comment on proceedings. Somehow, the terror dog's roar cuts off the diegetic song, and the cougar goes berserk. The play between sound and silence continues as Louis flees, lively bursts dancing with comic pauses.

The mickey-mousing here gives away the game; it's all for laughs. The attack stops the diegetic music within the restaurant dead—just for a bit—and then everyone goes back to enjoying themselves. As with any successful running gag, stopping and restarting the music only gets funnier each time.

Venkman's date starts promisingly enough, with an agreeable statement of the heroes' motif marking his arrival on Central Park West. But when he passes Louis's place, the wreckage, there's an ominous underscore, recalling similar score for the library ghost. Something's up.

Then the Gatekeeper reveals herself. Weird, exotic music for Zuul, a descending glissando leading into shimmering synths and strings. (But not before the film gets in one more gag of the characters cutting the music off, this time via a disappointed Gatekeeper slamming the door.) Note the return of the haunting motif, introduced all the way back in the library. How far we've come.

When Zuul roars, the evil theme roars with her, lifting up with her. But it's not all sound and fury. As Venkman looks up at her, Bernstein quotes Dana's theme, sad, mournful, minor, locked away someplace. Dana's still in there.

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It's not the first time Bernstein ever used that trick, of course; listen to The Great Escape, when the once-jaunty march mixes in among sadder score for the first casualty. Or The Magnificent Seven, where the iconic title motif slows down for majesty and drama. When a film recontextualizes a familiar sound, it helps us understand where the characters came from and where they're going. For instance, when we catch up with Dana, Venkman's sedated her; the score plays only the airy overtones of the spirit world, with the darker, lower register contained. The message is clear.

"How About a Little Music?"

The next scene starts with a distant, falling sound signal, like a radar blip, or Dana's oscillating heartbeat. Then a whisper of the heroes' motif. Then respectful silence, for the conversation that follows.

Bernstein's chilling score for "Judgment Day" mirrors nothing else in the film. Like the scene itself, it's simple, but incredibly effective. Perhaps too effective; the guys choose to forget their troubles and put on some music—the sole selection of Bernstein's pop-flavored tracks to make the cut. But the damage has been done, and the omens of Judgment Day pervade the rest of the film.

Walter Peck re-emerges with a pessimistic musical burn. As he crosses the garage floor, Bernstein provides a low ostinato and a two-note motif—perhaps parodying John Williams's Jaws theme—to highlight the relentless, unthinking nature of Peck's attack. Which, unfortunately, works. An exclamatory iteration of the evil theme welcomes back the ghosts, with a new phrase, dissonant and unfamiliar: a dismal, descending two-note pattern, like grim foghorns, drones among the sirens. The mood is bleak.

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Here begins Mick Smiley's "Magic", all breathy, erotic pulse and minor-key menace; these are dark times. As the transfixed Dana steps forward, a long-missing motif rejoins the film, the upward-sliding note of impending weirdness. Something uncanny is at work on Central Park West, and the Ghostbusters must tell us what.

The prison is as cut off from music as it is from everything else. On the outside, the Keymaster finds his Gatekeeper, eventually; when he lands at the Ivo Shandor Building, the haunting motif returns in a bellicose, demonic orchestration. Then a curiously balletic swirl, and a four-note march recalling Beethoven's Fifth, as Vinz Clortho and Zuul approach the temple, together.

"The Heart of the Ghostbusters"

Somewhat unusually, Ghostbusters recycles its pop songs; "Ghostbusters" and "Cleanin' Up the Town" appear twice each before the credits, and Alessi's "Savin' the Day", an unprecedented three. The song makes its first appearance en route to City Hall, employed instrumentally. It has a nice official feel, and one would be forgiven for thinking it score—even a motif in the making—until it turns up again with lyrics. (Which may be a bit on-the-nose, but, well, it's an '80s comedy.)

The evil theme intervenes, ushering in the earthquake, which buries the score in sound effects. The rest is silence; then Stantz emerges, partners in tow, and "Savin' the Day" resumes. Evidently the day is to be saved after all. But of course this exciting moment cannot pass un-undercut. As the Ghostbusters struggle up the steps, their theme honks lugubriously, but only the bass line. There's a long way to climb before anything happens.

Upstairs, lush, post-coital waves bid Zuul and Vinz Clortho rise; baroque Gothic stings begin the temple preparations, while the Ghostbusters' footsteps and theme make but slight progress. As the camera pulls back from the ruins of Dana's apartment, the score considers the enormity of the situation: the alternating, ascending notes match the pattern heard during the trapping of Slimer, but the sound is less glorious, more ominous. There's a bigger battle ahead.

Everything converges when the Ghostbusters arrive on the roof.

At this point if you can't recognize the motifs by yourself I've failed, please enjoy this picture

To start, Bernstein deftly interweaves the evil theme with elements of the monster-movie-style terror dog attack cue and the brief Beethoven-esque march of the Keymaster and Gatekeeper. It's perhaps the most aggressive portion of the score, rattling back and forth between ideas in between sudden, violent stings.

But then a pause. Gozer slinks out smoothly. The usual themes unspool in soft, graceful renditions designed to entrance rather than alarm. She doesn't need brass or pyrotechnics. She's dangerous enough by herself.

Indeed, Gozer's first attack comes literally without fanfare; the orchestra only picks up again for a determined, almost militaristic statement of the heroes' theme, as they form a line and march forth. Gozer crouches and snarls, and we get a discordant, high-pitched wail recalling the motif of impending weirdness. Then, the genuine article—to introduce the biggest, wildest, weirdest thing in the movie.

The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man repeats the score from the previous disaster, the firehouse explosion—the furious flare, the dreary deep notes. Sound effects quickly overtake the soundtrack, and now, for the final confrontation, Bernstein chronicles not characters but action. As Mr. Stay-Puft ascends, the score offers a brief stinger, cleverly inverting the pattern heard whilst trapping Slimer—this time the ghosts are winning. Meanwhile, Spengler's speech is met with furtive chirps, like his little flicker of inspiration. When the hopeful strings kick in, reaching ever higher, we can almost see the cartoon light bulbs turning on above everybody's heads. (Leaving aside the physical one beside Spengler's!)

Some worry-building music, and then the Ghostbusters cross the streams. Here, the score cribs from John Williams's work on Star Wars, the leadup to destroying the Death Star—a constant and ever-ascending pattern to build the tension, relieved not by the orchestra but by a massive explosion. (Strangely, the four-note pattern Bernstein builds from also turns up in his own prelude for 1958's The Buccaneer.)

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Ghostbusters vs. The Buccaneer — buy the score

Beneath the sound effects, one can even hear the orchestra repeating the final climactic note over and over, exactly like the Death Star cue. It's hard to argue with success.

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The actual Star Wars cue. This goes on. For hours. — buy the score

After climax, dénouement. When Venkman finds a charred shell in Dana's stead, the ondes Martenot restates the haunting theme, now mourning; a spirit has passed.

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As he looks back with sad eyes, the music recalls his unguarded moment, his "madly in love with you" scene. We are reminded, with cinema's most devastating weapon, of how much he's lost.

There are no words

Then a flutter of life. Another. The Ghostbusters hastily pull the terror dog husk apart, while the score becomes exploratory, ever ascending, grasping for the light. Then a clean, clear statement of Dana's theme, as she returns to life, and winds up—finally—in Venkman's arms.

All is well, and the film restates its heroes' theme, breezy and unbothered. Everything's back to normal, and ahead of schedule; the tightened edit of the film promotes Zeddemore's "I love this town!" to the curtain moment, and the music must sell that as if it were the plan all along.

Triumphant crashes. A glorious trill. A sudden rush of percussion.

Then the chorus shouts the film's name, and little else need be said. Though the final shot does mix in the ominous tone of impending weirdness. Maybe there's something new on the horizon…

"How Is Elvis, And Have You Seen Him Lately?"

Bernstein would not return for Ghostbusters II, citing a desire to move on from comedies; Randy Edelman would take up the baton in his stead, reusing none of his themes. Sadly, Edelman could not match Bernstein's mischievous zing; his action music proved too generic, his love theme far too sentimental. And inexplicably, Parker's theme song would share time with an awkward hip-hop update by Run-D.M.C.—"Walk This Way" it ain't—and Bobby Brown's "On Our Own". (Remember new jack swing?)

The songs lean regrettable, but the score's problem is harder to pin down. It's not a bad score, just lacking that special something. It's worth noting that some of Edelman's best-known cues, most notably his sweeping themes from Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Dragonheart and Gettysburg, are oft-recycled standbys for movie trailers, sports telecasts and weepy Oscar tributes. A Bernstein score is not so easily genericized. That's the magic of Ghostbusters: everything's got a charm all its own.

"The film isn't about music; the score isn't about music," reflects Oscar-winning composer Dave Grusin. "What we try to accomplish in film scoring is to channel those responses in an organized way, so that an audience can be moved in one direction or another without actually knowing why."

Sometimes film music is as subtle and invisible as the editing. Sometimes it leads the charge, demanding to be heard, hummed, purchased afterwards. Ghostbusters, ever a film of balancing acts, opts for the best of both worlds. At every turn, its score sets the mood, punctuates the joke, deepens the romance, heightens the tension—in short, tells the story. But it keeps to its place, lets the movie lead the way. The film, in turn, knows not to leave its audience without a musical hook—and that's where the songs come in.

Perhaps once again anecdotal evidence will best make the point. In June of 2009, a full twenty-five years after Ghostbusters' release, I saw Harold Ramis speak in New York. He was introduced with the song (you know which song), and of course, a wild ovation. "That follows me everywhere," he said, with a smile.


All music clips used on this page are low-quality excerpts (mono, 24 kbps, 22.050 KHz) of no more than 30 seconds per track, posted for purposes of criticism, scholarship and commentary.




BIBLIOGRAPHY (will open in separate window)

Overthinking Ghostbusters © 2012 Adam Bertocci.

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