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Film > Ghostbusters > Music > "Ghostbusters" Sony Classical Score Album - Essay

Ghostbusters: Original Motion Picture Score
Sony Classical Liner Notes Essay
by Peter Bernstein

When Ghostbusters came along in 1984, the composer, my father Elmer Bernstein, and the director, Ivan Reitman, had already been working together for about seven years. They first met when Ivan was a producer of a low-budget comedy at Universal. The director, an old high school friend of mine who had known my father when we were teenagers, said that he was told by Universal that "Elmer Bernstein won't even return your call." But not only did he return the call, the movie was Animal House and its amazing success changed a lot of careers.

Suddenly, Elmer Bernstein, the Academy Award®-winning composer (1967, Original Music Score, Thoroughly Modern Millie) of epics like The Ten Commandments, hard-driving jazz scores like The Man With the Golden Arm, landmark western scores, The Magnificent Seven, dramas, To Kill a Mockingbird, World War Two adventures, The Great Escape, and so on - now entering the fourth decade of his career, was suddenly known as a comedy composer working on the biggest comedies of the era, including those directed by Ivan Reitman. It was "overnight success" for the already successful.

A few years and many comedy scores later, Ghostbusters presented some unique challenges. My father had created a style of comedy composing where the music, instead of telling the audience "this is funny," more often sounded like a dramatic score which took itself no less seriously than the characters it accompanied. Not that he was above tossing in a musical joke from time to time (and he loved doing it), but he chose his spots carefully. However, with Ghostbusters, the emotional range was so wide - from an end-of-the-world supernatural apocalypse to over-the-top comedy - that this model was in danger of breaking down as the score constantly tiptoed a fine line between the two extremes. The ghost story had to sound scary, but not so scary that the comedy, which might be happening at the same time, was overshadowed. Meanwhile, both the ghost story and the comedy had to coexist with the love story, and all of this with the end of the world in the offing.
He called it one of his most difficult projects to find the right tone for, and he was constantly on the phone with Ivan discussing scene by scene just how far to take the comedy or the drama. This continued even through the recording sessions. He used to describe film composing as a "collaborative art," and Ghostbusters turned out to be a very good example of it.

He also called the movie "a composer's holiday" because it offered such a wide range of things to do and experiment with. He had used early forms of synthesizers before - most notably on his blacklist-era low-budget sci-fi scores, where they helped make up for the tiny orchestra size. But the Ghostbusters sessions included, along with a full orchestra, three state-of-the-art (at the time) DX7 synths as well as an Ondes Martenot. He used them to create the ghostly soundscapes which fit the action so well. In fact, the very first sound of the score is a single note from one of those DX7s - a first for him and perhaps a first for anyone at the time. The result was a score that could only have been composed for this particular movie: a comedy, a drama, a love story and a supernatural adventure all rolled into one seamless musical package.

He would be very pleased to know that the original recordings are being released, including the material not used in the final sound mix.

Ghostbusters also changed careers. Ivan Reitman was no longer making what used to be called "youth comedies," he was mainstream - and you don't get any more mainstream than directing the highest-grossing film of the year.

For me, it was the bittersweet end of my wonderful decade as an orchestrator working for my father (among others) as I transitioned into my own composing career. We had a whole lot of fun together in those days.

And for him, it was the beginning of the end of his extraordinary run of comedy work: Animal House, Stripes, Airplane, Meatballs, Trading Places, Ghostbusters, 3 Amigos, to name just some. A few years later, he had reinvented himself yet again and was composing scores for movies directed or produced by Martin Scorsese.

It all speaks to his incredible versatility and longevity. To my knowledge, he was the only person to be nominated for an Academy Award® in every decade from the 1950s to the 2000s.

That speaks for itself.

-- Peter Bernstein, 2019      

Established August 1996

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