Song of the Week #5: "Ghostbusters"
Well after much anticipation(?), Ghostbusters: Afterlife plopped into theaters like a wet fart, accompanied by mixed reviews and general annoying chatter online. I myself haven’t seen it, and I don’t particularly want to! Quite frankly I’m sick of Ghostbusters! I’m sick of the whole damn franchise! I’m sick of the fact that it even is a franchise! Why? Who needs it? Who saw the original movie and thought, “Yeah, this needs to be something grown men will argue about three decades later”? Ghostbusters was a perfectly entertaining comedy, but did it really merit all the drama that surrounds it? Did it warrant a nostalgia-baiting legacy sequel? Or any sequel period? I certainly don’t think so, but I’m not a Hollywood executive, unfortunately. Still, I shouldn’t be too negative; there’s a holiday this week after all. And in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I think we should focus on things to be thankful for. For starters, The Great Oscar Baiter is back after its lengthy hiatus! And secondly, I think we can all be thankful for the fact that Ray Parker Jr.’s theme from Ghostbusters was nominated for an Academy Award!
The story of how "Ghostbusters" (the theme for Ghostbusters) came to be is the stuff of movie legend. Given only a few days to come up with a theme for the film (this was back when you couldn't have a movie without a theme song, it was just the law) and a rather strange title to try to work in, Parker Jr. had a fairly impossible task ahead of him. (It's widely reported that he had absolutely no idea what the movie was about when he wrote the song, but apparently the filmmakers had shown him some footage from the film to help get the creative juices flowing; this will be important later.) But inspiration struck late at night (as is so often the case) when Parker caught an informercial on TV and the idea came to him to write the song as a fake jingle. In hindsight it seems like an obvious idea- so much so that it's strange to me that it wasn't part of the film from the beginning. But I suppose that's the thing about works of genius- they always seem so obvious in hindsight. And make no mistake- it is a work of genius. While Ghostbusters may not be worth all the insane amount of hype it gets, "Ghostbusters" earns it all and then some.
If you asked me to explain the enduring popularity of the Ghostbusters brand, I would say, unequivocally, it's due to this song. Oh sure, some people would point to the chemistry of the cast or the excellent special effects, but those people are all knaves and fools- it's all about the song. Everything about is instantly iconic- the slick bass line, the blaring horn section and, of course, Parker Jr.'s effortlessly charismatic delivery. It's cheesy, yes, but it's also really cool, and all in a way that doesn't seem like it's trying too hard. Cheesy, cool and not trying too hard also probably sums up Ghostbusters as a film in general, so it really is the perfect theme song for the film when you think about it. Maybe that's why the song works so well as it does- it fits in with the vibe of the film by matching it so completely, only better. It captures the freewheeling and goofy tone of the film, captures the low-rent, blue collar element (swapping out the "ghost hunters as exterminators" gag for a cheesy informercial jingle) and then just pumps up the energy to eleven. It's the sort of song designed to stick in your head in a way that's infectious without ever being annoying, and that carries throughout the film.
Even if it's placement within the film is well-deployed, serving as a nice soundtrack accompaniment to the montage charting the Ghostbusters' rise to fame. In a lot of films, this would probably be just an easily forgotten bit of table setting (well, aside from the infamous "Dan Ackroyd Ghost Blow Job" scene), possibly a repository for deleted scenes and outtakes that needed to go somewhere. But the use of "Ghostbusters" (how many times can I use one word to mean three different things in one review?) instantly turns the scene into a highlight of the film. Honestly, watching the scene without the song, would any of those jokes really land? (Again, aside from the ghost blow job scene.) I suppose that's a quintessentially 80s element of the film though; that was the decade of the montage and, most importantly, the (hopefully) kickass song that plays over it. And all due respect to your Rockies and Karate Kids, but I think "Ghostbusters" is the best of the lot, and I think most people would agree. The song even made it to the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100, which seems downright insane to me. But honestly, who can blame anyone for buying it? It just makes them feel good!
Of course, as is always the case when something makes it that big, a lawsuit is soon to follow. In this case the suit came from Huey Lewis (of "and the News" fame) who alleged that Parker Jr. ripped the bassline from "I Want a New Drug" for "Ghostbusters." The two would eventually settle out of court, only for Parker Jr. to sue Huey Lewis in 2001 for violating the confidentiality agreement that was part of the original settlement! How do you like them apples? Personally I don't really think Lewis had much of a leg to stand on, but I'm obviously no music expert. For what it's worth, apparently the filmmakers would later to admit to using "I Want a New Drug" as a temp track for scenes in the movie, but if that were enough to qualify as plagiarism then every Hollywood composer working today would be constantly suing every other Hollywood composer. Especially Hans Zimmer. Still, there's really only so many new combinations one can make in the music world, and if "Ghostbusters" sounds a bit like "I Want a New Drug" as a result of trying to match its energy, that's almost inevitable. I'll let you decide for yourself, though.
At any rate, no lawsuit could tarnish the legacy of "Ghostbusters", which has gone on to remain a beloved classic while Huey Lewis and the News lives on as something that Patrick Bateman rants about before brutally murdering Jared Leto. Aside from being used in every piece of marketing for every Ghostbusters-related piece of media ever made, "Ghostbusters" has lived on the Internet area as a fertile source for memes and remixes. And really, doesn't it say everything you need to know about a song's quality when a joke remix still manages to kick just as much ass as the original?
Sadly, no amount of chart success or future meme videos could equate to an Oscar win for Ray Parker Jr. "Ghostbusters" would lose to Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You", written for the Gene Wilder film The Woman in Red, which I have not seen and am willing to bet you haven't either. For the record, "I Just Called to Say I Love You" also beat "Footloose" that year, so clearly the Oscars don't hand out these awards based on cultural impact. But in the end, I think both of those songs were the real winners in the end. After all, both songs are still widely beloved to this day, and the second you put them on people are going to connect them to their movies. (Granted, that's somewhat inevitable when the song shares a title with its movie, but I digress.) Oscars aren't everything, even here at The Great Oscar Baiter, and the legacy of a song (or film) can't be summed up with a shiny trophy. And even if I will always remain a little confused by the lasting legacy of Ghostbusters, I'm happy at the very least that "Ghostbusters" will never die.
Have any suggestions for the next Short of the Week? Contact me on Twitter via @NoahGoucher!