In the summer of 1984, a soon-to-be-mega-hit called “Ghostbusters” bowed in movie theaters across America, eventually becoming the highest-grossing, big-screen comedy of all time.
One of its four titular stars, Bill Murray, grew up about 10 miles south of Ravinia in Wilmette and learned to be professionally funny at The Second City in Old Town. Another member of its marquee quartet, a Chicago native named Harold Ramis (who also served as the film’s co-writer), would later return to live out the rest of his days in Glencoe and Highland Park — essentially in Ravinia’s back yard.
“Ghostbusters” will earn even more high-level Chicago cred on July 21 when Ravinia hosts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conductor Peter M. Bernstein as they perform the movie’s soundtrack while Murray, Ramis et al., get slimed on multiple screens throughout the venue. Audience participation, as Bernstein will make clear in a brief pre-performance talk, is encouraged.
By the way, Bernstein isn’t just any conductor; he’s the son of legendary film composer Elmer Bernstein (1922-2004), whose vast soundtrack canon includes — wait for it — “Ghostbusters.” Peter, in fact, was one of two orchestrators who worked with his father on that project, which fell near the end of their 11-year-long collaboration. That partnership produced scores for other major comedy hits such as the Ramis-written-and-directed college romp “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978, featuring Chicago-trained John Belushi in his breakout role), “Meatballs” (1979, Ramis and Murray), “Airplane!” (1980), “Stripes” (1981, also Ramis and Murray) and “Trading Places” (1983).
“On these comedies, which aren’t exactly deep entertainment, he brought all of his skill and experience to bear,” Bernstein says of his father, whose many dramatic credits include “The Man with the Golden Arm” (1955), “The Ten Commandments” (1956), “The Magnificent Seven” (1960) and “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962). (Nominated 14 times for an Academy Award, he won the best score Oscar for “Thoroughly Modern Millie” in 1968.) “They’re just as well thought-out, just as powerful and precise as anything else he did.”
During a 2002 interview with The Guardian, the elder Bernstein recounted his foray into comedies, which began with director John Landis’s invitation for Elmer to view a rough cut of “Animal House” the year before it premiered. “So I went and looked at this film. … It was hysterically funny. I said, ‘Well, John. It’s very funny. But I still don’t see where I fit into all this.’ He said, ‘I have an idea how I’d like this film to be scored. I would like you to score this film as if it were a drama. Score these scenes as if they were drama without any reference to funny sounds and funny music, anything like that.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s a good idea.’ And so I agreed to do it.”
“Of course, the effect is hysterical. If you score funny scenes seriously, they are much funnier, so long as they are funny to begin with. It set a trend on how to score comedies.”
Peter Bernstein thinks “Ghostbusters,” which as of this year, has brought in more than $640 million in domestic ticket sales, according to the firm Box Office Mojo, is “big and powerful and extremely smart because [my father] walks this fine line between comedy, drama and a supernatural love story. And it’s all seamlessly put together.”
According to the show-biz adage, comedy is harder to do well than drama. On whether the same holds true for comedy soundtracks, Bernstein isn’t so sure. “I don’t know that it’s harder, but it’s easier to get wrong. It’s easier to overstate.”
One thing his father’s comedy scores never do, he says, is influence audience reaction about what’s funny and what isn’t. Every now and then they’re purposely overstated in order to heighten mood or add emphasis, but they’re never manipulative.
“What they’re telling you is, ‘These characters on the screen believe what’s going on, and maybe you should, too.’”
Mike Thomas, a Chicago-based writer, is the author of the books You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman and Second City Unscripted: Revolution and Revelation at the World-Famous Comedy Theater.