Songs I Love: Rose Elinor Dougall’s ‘Hell and Back’ (2017)

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Okay, deep breath. I’m going to try and put into words just how much I love my all-time favourite song by my all-time favourite singer and songwriter who isn’t called David Bowie.

Sad songs are everywhere, and I’ve listened to, experienced, cried to, dreamt to and been knocked out senseless by so many of them. Of course I also love happy songs, I love songs that I can dance to (badly) and I love weird shit too, but given that I find music the sweetest of all artistic tonics and it’s what I turn to when I need solace and comfort – sad songs in particular can be that indescribable embrace I need the most when I feel lost. I don’t know what I’d do without them. Then there are those sad songs that encapsulate turbulent, shattering and heartbreaking emotions so well and with such power that they end up being strangely kind of ecstatic, euphoric, utterly life-affirming and vital. They make me feel deliriously ridiculous and out of my mind with pleasure and sheer sensation.

‘Hell and Back’, a highlight amongst nothing but highlights (doesn’t make sense, I know) on the amazing 2017 LP Stellular by the fucking spectacularly talented Rose Elinor Dougall, is probably my favourite example of such a song.

I mean, it is very bloody sad indeed. But there’s a kind of defiant, passionate sweep to it that means I actually don’t want to curl up into a ball when I play it – I want to sing with it (badly) and then some. It is an an incredible, miasmic and breathtaking gut-punch of a song that boasts the kind of melodic (vocal and musical) shifts that make me want to weep with awe. It so good it just makes me want to knock on people’s doors like a bloody Jehovah’s Witness and ask them if they know about the Book of Rose – I mean, how can a song this astonishing not be loved by everyone? What the fuck is going on here, people?

And that’s the thing about Stellular, the thing that makes it so essential is its sheer richness. It sounds so fucking alive – it is an incredible production, a living, breathing, existing thing – it makes me want to live. It wreaks havoc with this heart of mine (to quote another Dougall song), it breathes life into the devils and demons in my soul and reminds me just how precious and essential the sheer act of existing is.

Compared to the modest (and very lovely) sound of Dougall’s first album, Stellular tears through the speakers in spectacularly exciting style. The beat, the pulse, the pace, the sweep – all of a sudden Dougall’s music was thrillingly widescreen, cinematic and yet so intensely intimate – sometimes a band or an artist can sound like they’ve had more money thrown at them but something ends up missing in the process. Not here. This album sounds like a million quid but also sounds utterly vivid, urgent – right there in the room with you.

It’s also the kind of all-killer/no-filler pop rush that the old days of vinyl demanded – there’s not a moment wasted here. It’s almost like a greatest hits that never was – every song delivers a colossal wallop, and yet it’s not exhaustingly high-octane either. The album moves through a kaleidoscopic range of tones, emotions and paces. Wind-tunnel, high-speed pop like the title track shake hips against utterly heavenly ballads (‘Take Yourself With You’), wrenching torch songs (‘Answer Me’), dancefloor funk (‘All at Once’), motorik-fuelled duets (‘Dive’, with co-producer Oli Bayston on guest vocals) and best of all, ‘Hell and Back’.

Everything about Stellular is brilliant, but above all else is that voice. It’s the voice I’ve been waiting to hear on record all my life – so relatable, charming, seductive, heartbreaking, powerful, subtle, beautifully restrained when necessary and, thanks to Dougall’s own creativity in the studio, wonderfully malleable and stunningly treated so that it becomes a kind of instrument in itself. I can listen to this voice all day. It has ten times the impact of other, lesser singers who always think more is more, that louder is better. It isn’t. Of course it isn’t. Dougall’s voice is stunningly layered, versatile and it’s getting better and better too. One listen to her new album A New Illusion is staggering proof of that – but that’s now. I’m talking about then.

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And I need to get back to ‘Hell and Back’ in particular – starting with, er…squiggles of synth (sorry writers, producers and performers, I tried my best with that one) and a drum beat that leads into those first lines: ‘In this world, seldom few contentedly make it through’ – we all have suffered, we rarely get through life without being burned, without avoiding the fucking dreadful pain that life can throw at us. Later talk of ‘black dogs’ suggest depression is a key subject matter here. Hey, I can relate to that. I’m on anti-depressant meds, have been for over a decade-and-a-half now – they’ve been part of my life so long that taking them in the morning (and evening) is as natural as putting the kettle on and waiting for it to boil to make my first tea of the day. I’ve suffered intense anxiety, OCD, depression in the past and wow, it’s a bastard. Yet it’s also made me stronger than ever because I’ve had to fight so hard to come to terms with it and I’ve learned to cope and live through it, and with it. Songs like ‘Hell and Back’ hit me hard because of this.

Dougall sings, ‘I walk that jagged line’ – I’m not sure if this means skirting the line between a what one would consider a normal life and one that one would consider ‘ill’ or ‘depressed’ – you know, seeming fine on the outside, but terrified that one might slip and fall into the abyss of depression at any time soon. It could also mean the euphoria and despair of feeling intense emotions, feeling like you can take on the world one moment and feeling there’s no hope at another. This is followed by ‘dance alone or out of time’. I’ve danced alone – sometimes, when you’re content with a night in, a glass of wine and your favourite mix playing, that can be great, but dancing alone can be the pits if you’re in a club and you’re with someone you feel no connection with or if you’re not dancing with the one you really want to dance with.

Obviously, I’m just taking what I’m personally taking from the song – there’s no definitive meaning to a song, ever. As for dancing out of time, well I’m going to assume that Dougall’s a good dancer (anyone who wrote ‘All at Once’ has to have a sense of rhythm) and that this is more to do with just feeling totally out of sync with everyone else. Feeling disconnected. Alone at the party. The music during these verses simmer and tremble with tension – sadness, an intense, longing and nerve-wracking kind of sadness, tightly wound by the coiled playing. It’s an incredible performance by the band, and proof of Dougall’s superb songwriting and grasp of structure. With verses like these, the tension can only last so long – something has to give.

The chorus is that very give, and it exudes a strangely determined passion – ‘let’s go to hell and back again’ – there seems to be a choice being made here, a statement of intent. Maybe let’s surrender ourselves to the pain, and if we see it through together, then maybe it will be okay. But who’s Dougall singing to? A fellow sufferer? Herself? Is she looking in the mirror when she’s singing this, prompting herself to carry on?

Yet ‘I have tried, I have tried to rid myself of them’ makes me question the line immediately before. Maybe Dougall’s not the one singing the title. Maybe it’s the demon on her shoulder, tempting her to fall into darkness, and ‘no matter how I try, they always win’ could be a surrender to that darkness. Now this chorus is, without a doubt, my most beloved moment in any Dougall song, and believe me, it’s up against formidable competition. What I love about Dougall’s songs is that they are, as well as being magnificent compositions as a whole, so full of extraordinary moments that I do the silly thing all the time and rewind my fave bits of the song to experience them all over again and again.

I’ll tell you which bit in the chorus absolutely kills me – every time. It’s ‘I have tried, I have tried to rid myself of them’ – especially, that bit I’ve put in italics. Oh my god, all I can do is sit down and just fucking keep it all together, lest I just fall apart over its unimaginable beauty. And the come down of ‘they always win’ ends the chorus (and indeed the song) on a frightening, uncertain note. This is not a song with a resolution.

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‘Hold my breath, even count to ten’ – are these methods, attempts to hold off anxiety? Maybe an OCD ritual, an exercise? It doesn’t seem to work – ‘the dark clouds descend’ immediately afterwards. Thinking about these words are fucking killing me, to be honest. They’re so sad. That feeling of hopelessness – ‘it’s no use’ – it just breaks my heart. If this indeed is what Dougall’s singing about, then I can relate to that sense of despair.

The next line –  ‘will you be my sole one partner in crime?’ is delivered with such a yearning, emotional wallop that it makes me want to fucking cry. Who is this partner? If it is Dougall singing in the first-person at the start of the chorus, then the sole partner must be that same person she’s singing to. A best friend, a lover – someone who she needs here with her. ‘Partner in crime’ is a fascinating way to put this, too – it gives the whole song an almost darkly romantic air, that together the two of them can find some kind of escape, like outlaws on the run, maybe? Yet unlike the almost determined ‘let’s go to hell and back again’, Dougall’s question (and delivery of that question) is less a hand outstretched to join her on this journey and more an intensely hopeful, pleading proposal.

The black dog, that famous signifier of depression arrives immediately afterwards, that blasted, incessant, heavy and intent beast that spoils it all, that tells you nothing will be alright, that you’re right to worry, to doubt, to feel bad. ‘Here comes the black dog’ – Dougall awaits her arrival, she’s been here before, it’s happening again. ‘Feel her running wild’ – not ‘see’, but ‘feel’ – because the dog is obviously not literal, its actions, its behaviour can only ever be felt. And don’t I have a lazy imagination for being taken aback when Dougall refers to the black dog as ‘her’ and not ‘him’? For me I’ve always pictured the black dog as male, but when a girl or a woman is suffering from depression, why the fuck would they picture it as male? I’m an idiot. Maybe it’s because most exposures to depression that I’ve encountered first-hand have been from men. That’s no excuse, though.

The chorus comes again, and like all brilliant second choruses, it takes the first and builds on it – in this case, backing vocals come in (are they Dougall’s?) doubling ‘devils and demons’ and adding ‘oh I have tried’ to the relevant foreground vocals, and the effect is almost like a taunting, deceptively innocent nursery-rhyme being sung by a playfully malevolent chorus of singers. It’s totally devastating.

Then there’s the amazing middle-eight, where everything builds and builds and swirls and swirls: synths come in, at once pulsating and insistent and also moving around and over the listener, and soon Dougall’s vocals do the same– multi-tracked so they mirror this whirlpool of sound, where they become a kind of instrument in themselves. I like to think of it as a less disturbing version of Tim Buckley’s incredible vocals-only experimental piece ‘Star Sailor’. Unlike that ‘song’, where the effect was pretty fucking terrifying, the effect here is like being intoxicated, or maybe something like hurtling through the stargate at the end of 2001 – absolutely remarkable production here. Few songs have conveyed this sense of sheer sensation – it takes the song to another level entirely.

With expert sleight of hand, it all stops, with nothing but a bassline, minimal percussion, and of course Dougall’s voice singing the chorus. It’s disarming and makes you double-check yourself. The second half of the chorus sees the whole band come back in and once more, the devils and demons win, and the song stretches out for a few more moments before stopping abruptly. It’s the perfect ending to the perfect song. Brilliantly, the song that follows – ‘Space to Be’– is cut from the same emotional, despairing cloth as ‘Hell and Back’, but something close to sunshine and wild determination breaks through here, a fiery yearning to be free from it all which makes it a far more positive song, and the absolute rush of energy the music provides delivers that positivity. Together the two songs form a mind-blowing double impact.

‘Hell and Back’, no lie, is in my top ten songs of all time. It just encapsulates absolutely everything I love about music, how it can take me away, how it can take sadness and make something truly exhilarating, incredible and astonishing from it, how it can make me want to cry, how it makes me want to just want to sing, scream, sigh and swoon. Nothing beats it. Fuck it, I think it might be my favourite song ever.

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Rose Elinor Dougall: ‘Make it With You’

The road to the third album begins here…

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So… last Tuesday… just another day. Sign in at work at 9am, sign out at 5pm, the usual. But somewhere in-between I see a tweet from Rose Elinor Dougall informing us to keep an eye out for something new in 24-or-so hours time and my attention is well and truly caught – a new song, hopefully?

Dougall’s last album, 2017’s Stellular, was frankly the finest album I’d heard this century. I can’t really say much more about it than I already have done, but I have to say here that it encapsulated everything I love about pop music in one concentrated blast of ecstatic, sad, beautiful, sexy, haunting, catchy and spine-tingling euphoria. I wish it had done better in the charts – songs these good deserve to be heard more, but there you go. It wasn’t to be. The public’s loss. What do they know, eh?

I remember writing at the end of my review that there was no need to look forward to what Dougall would do next, because what we had right there and then was more enough, but time passes, and new songs inevitably come along. Given that Stellular was an absolute high for me, what happens after that? Well, a fall isn’t necessarily inevitable. I mean, if Stellular was Dougall’s Ziggy Stardust, then her next album could very well be her Aladdin Sane, and that would be A Very Good Thing Indeed, right? Still, I was a little bit nervous – could Dougall deliver a song as wonderful as anything on Stellular?

Aaaaaagh! Enough with the suspense! Yes, she can, alright?!!! Happy now?

Well, you should be. What a gorgeous song this is.

‘Make it With You’ is recognisably Dougall, but also sounds like the start of new territory for her. There are shades of Without Why‘s occasionally forlorn balladry, but now it feels imbued with the richer textures of Stellular as well as a more mature, sadder perspective. It sounds like the next step from the latter’s album’s closer ‘Wanderer’, but the mood is even more intimate, even more personal. I imagine when performed live this is going to be very special indeed. I wonder how the rest of the album will sound. As a lead single it’s remarkably subtle and quietly emotional. Dougall has a way with balladry and melodic shifts that clutches the heart and reduces me to a right old state. Seriously. I’m talking close to tears here, people.

The song appears to be about a relationship which is at a crossroads – there’s doubt and uncertainty here, yet hope and optimism, albeit of the bruised kind, too. The words are sparse, but each line cuts deep. I won’t delve into them here, because the song is too new for me and I think these lines should only be heard within the context of the song itself. I don’t want to try and take the song apart, not just yet. I feel like I should barely be talking about this  – Dougall sounds like she’s putting her heart out on record and here I am blithely writing about it.

What I will say that there is a beautiful directness to the words  that is very affecting and, couple with the music, proves to be quite powerful indeed. I won’t go into specific moments, but I heard shades of Pulp’s mid-eighties sound – notably that eerie violin drone of theirs that gave some of their B-sides a particular chill. Also, a vaguely country feel somewhere between the layers of sound. Also, an ambient hum – is that a mellotron? Some achingly lovely piano. A bit of Bowie’s ‘Five Years’-in-slow-motion with its beat.

I’ve listened to this song loads of times already in just these few days, and it’s a really special slow-dance of a song that’ll turn those grey skies outside a deep, dark blue. Yes, blue. I hear this song bathed in dreamy, sad, beautiful blue and I want to fall into it, and that’s what playing the song on loop is for, I guess. Also, the song features the word ‘renowned’, which I don’t think I’ve ever heard used in a song before. Bravo.

Listen to or buy ‘Make it With You’ here – the single package also features an edit of the title track and a lovely cover of Dave Cousins blissful/spooky 1972 song ‘Two Weeks Last Summer’, which strips down the trippiness of the original and plays up its acoustic, bucolic core. It’s very, very nice indeed.

Rose Elinor Dougall: Stellular review (2017)

Bigger, better, more beautiful – it’s the perfect second album, and well worth the wait.

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Rose Elinor Dougall’s new, appropriately titled album Stellular is spectacularly great. Honestly, it’s the best extended pop rush I have heard in absolutely ages. You know when you’re worried that you might actually be playing a particular album (or song) too much and end up not liking it (it’s happened before, I just don’t know when to quit!), so you actually consider refraining from putting it on? Right now that’s how I feel about this album. I’m not going to stop listening to it though – I’ve had the bloomin’ thing on rotation these last few weeks and I bloody love it! Frankly, Stellular is an embarrassment of riches – there are so many joyous, sad, exciting and dazzling moments, with far too many to list here, but I’ll do my best.

Ever since departing The Pipettes around a decade ago, Dougall has slowly but steadily been delivering all kinds of musical and vocal treasures, such as on her debut Without Why (I mean, ‘Start/Stop/Synchro’ and ‘Fallen Over’? Wow!!) and the dazzling Future Vanishes EP, but this is a whole new level of special. The seaside town melancholia and melodic loveliness from before is still here, but there’s an even greater vivacity and confidence that is knock-you-off-your-feet stunning. I was partly reminded of David Holmes’ sorely underrated, oceanic pearl The Holy Pictures from 2008, as well as some early Felt (the Maurice Deebank years), a bit of motorik, but most importantly, this 1980’s essence that I can’t quite pin down. I’m not talking 80’s in the obvious sense, but something more spectral, difficult to grasp.

‘Colour of Water’ is a great primer for what’s to follow – dreamy vocals (Dougall’s thoroughly engaging and expressive voice is better than ever), sharp, hypnotic guitar hooks, gorgeous electronics, captivating lyrics and intoxicating production from Oli Bayston (aka Boxed In, who also duets with Dougall on ‘Dive’) that aims for the senses and gets ‘em tingling. First single ‘Stellular’ is magnificent – a delectable riff, icy/warm synths and an insistent groove all make for a serious adrenaline rush. ‘Constellations burn brighter’ indeed. ‘Closer’ is a sultry, tightly-coiled slice of pop that blends quotidian references to ‘shady pool halls’ with otherworldly, atmospheric musical touches. The album’s first out-and-out heartbreaker arrives in the form of the beautiful ‘Take Yourself With You’ (first released via Soundcloud back in late 2014 – how time has flown!), an impossibly moving and almost unbearably pretty lullaby of a tune, arguably Dougall’s sweetest confection to date. There are melodic changes in this song that are so stupidly wonderful that I’m likely to end up spluttering nonsense trying to put in words my precise admiration for it, so I’ll shut up.

So, we’re at that stage where the album’s going for a perfect run. Will it succeed?

Spoiler alertyes it will.

The dance-infused, instant satisfaction surprise of ‘All at Once’ is quite a swerve, delivering a stomping, funky treat with a seductive chorus, whip-crack beats and monster bassline (there’s some really fine bass on this record) – there’s a great extended remix of this on the Rough Trade exclusive bonus CD that plays out like a wonderful 80’s-era twelve-inch. Seek it out if you can. ‘Answer Me’ is an aching, towering ballad that swirls its way towards a truly ghostly, shivering conclusion. Some glorious piano and a terrific chorus on this one too. ‘Dive’ picks up the pace – serene but with a beat, it brilliantly conveys that feeling of being bowled over by a sheer panoramic scale of emotions.

What’s possibly the best song follows. Well, it’s my fave song at the moment. There’s a few others on this LP that are closing in. For the mo though, my #1 is the jolting ‘Hell and Back’ – it’s truly wrenching and intensely melancholic, yet head-dizzying and cathartic. The glorious ascension that is ‘Space to Be’ is tremulous but never overwrought, ascending melodic heights in its chorus and especially during its guitar-fuelled finale. The concluding ‘Wanderer’ is an exquisite love-letter that sees the album out in a lovely glimmer, and almost unfairly, the album’s over – gone in a moment, a deliriously fleeting, motion-blur experience, nicely encapsulated by the album’s artwork, a portrait of Dougall that catches her image twice.

Stellular hits the heart, pulse and feet in the way the best albums that first overwhelmed you as a teenager do. You may wonder where Dougall will go after this but don’t think about any of that at the mo. Right now, this is all you need. It’s a promise fulfilled and it’s right here, right now.

Les Combattants/Love at First Fight (2014)

Sweet and surprising French comedy-drama.

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‘I don’t hit girls’

That’s how Arnaud (Kevin Azais) reacts when he’s been coerced into a surprise beach wrestling match with Madeleine (Adele Hanael). I can relate. I don’t hit girls. Saying that, I don’t hit boys either. So yeah, bless Arnaud and his dilemma, but if his female opponent has stepped into the ring by choice, odds are she knows she can take him on. And yes, she kicks his arse. Madeleine is a focused, prepared, humourless and tough-as-nails young woman who spends her spare time training for whatever impending apocalypse may be looming around the corner. Arnaud seems happy just to stay at home for the summer and work with his brother in their self-employed trade as builders. In fact, their latest job turns out to be at Madeleine’s house, where her parents would like a poolside shed installed.

As Arnaud continues with his work and Madeleine practices combat swimming (with spare building equipment crammed in her rucksack to add extra pressure to her training), the two get to know each in the barest minimum way. She’s taciturn to say the least, but Arnaud’s intrigued, and when he discovers that she wants to join the army (and not just the lower ranks – she wants to join the hardcorps, where you are pushed to the limit), he volunteers to take her to the next town so that she can enlist for a two week training camp. In a moment of recklessness, Arnaud enlists too, even if it means temporarily leaving his brother in the lurch.

This is one of those small but perfectly executed films, and a really enaging one too. There are lots of great little moments, especially between our two leads, who have an awkward but gradually special connection. It is a romance – you could almost say a romantic comedy, but despite the tone being light and energetic, it’s not exactly that either. There are no comic set-pieces or gags as such. It’s simply a drama with humour (hmm, that’s not as marketable as ‘rom-com’, I’ll admit) as well as charm, life, and oomph. It’s also beautifully filmed – a sequence at a lake late on in the film is particularly nice. Admittedly, Arnaud and Madeleine are not quite an equal double-act – the story is mostly told from Arnaud’s point-of-view, but Madeleine’s the more fascinating of the two, mainly because she’s the more beguiling, complex character, I suppose. Still, they make a great couple, and I found the ending particularly satisfying. A great little film.

Ghostbusters (2016)

Don’t believe the bad hype. It’s alright!

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When future generations look back on this time – our time – and they think of Ghostbusters, we all want them to think of the wonders of the original 1984 film, the underrated wonders of the second and the animated wonders of the cartoon (at least before it was ruined by meddling execs), don’t we? A fine legacy, right? But nooooooooooo, Hollywood had to spoil everything by re-BOOTing the damn thing, so now when future generations look back on Ghostbusters, they may very well think of this new version before the old one, the old one which we took to our hearts and still love decades later. Sacriliege! Well, it would be sacriliege if the film was crap.

Which it isn’t.

I’ll admit, the news of a Ghostbusters reboot filled with me fear. Reboots, remakes and remodels have a very patchy success rate in this day and age. Legacys spoiled and whatnot. The fourth Indiana Jones film is probably the most saddening example of this, all the more baffling because it was the original director responsible for such dirty soilage. I’m a child of the 1980s – I may have been too young to experience the fruits of the ‘Second Golden Age of Hollywood’ (as Homer Simpson puts it) at the cinema, but home video and TV viewing meant I devoured a lot the classics anyway, and yes, these films turned out to be very special for a lot of us. When news of a remake arrives, it’s usually accompanied with a groan. Remember when Poltergeist got remade a year or so ago? Somehow we all knew it wasn’t going to be that great, and apparently it wasn’t. I never watched it, but I never heard a good word about it, and as such, didn’t bother. By that time I had been fed up of giving remakes/reboots a chance when they usually turned out to be either rubbish (The Omen, The Wicker Man) or just meh (Robocop, The Thing), so the likes of Evil Dead, Elm Street, Total Recall, Point Break and whatnot were simply ignored by this good reviewer. Not from sheer ignorant obstinance, but because I do take film critics seriously – when they were saying the film in question wasn’t much cop, I took their word for it, and for the most part, they were right. Sometimes I’d catch up with a particular remake and realise that I should have given it a chance, but those are the risks you take, I suppose. At the same time I remain soberly cynical about future remakes in the pipeline (Big Trouble in Little China, for example) because I’ve been burned before and I don’t want to get my hopes up too much. I won’t be picketing the studios or trolling on Twitter though, because that’s just mean.

Why? Because in the end, none of these remakes or reboots ruined my childhood. They just ruined my evening, that’s all. The originals were still there, and yes, it was painful at the time to see these inferior versions claim the limelight over the original for that brief moment when it was released and were publicised, but mostly they faded into obscurity. Why? Because they weren’t any good. If they did latch on to the public consciousness, it was probably because they did have something to offer, and I’m all for that. If a remake or a reboot is great, then what are we complaining about? The first two Bale/Nolan Batman films, the Planet of the Apes films are two examples of reboots that have worked spectacularly well. And you know what? The older films are still there to be enjoyed and savoured. Living together in perfect harmony and whatnot.

The news of a Ghostbusters remake however, turned out to be the Last Straw in the eyes of those who feel all originals should be left alone. I’ll admit, my first reaction was that of jaded pessimism – the director Paul Feig, had made Bridesmaids, a funny-but-not-that-funny comedy that seemed to get a freer than usual pass because of the all too rare occurrence of a high-profile comedy with a predominantly female cast. I felt it suffered from the same Judd Apatow problem of a comedy that was too long, too baggy and in sore need of an editor. Oh well though, we’ll see what happens, I suppose. For some though, the news of a Ghostbusters reboot was just too much – I hadn’t really been paying attention to much of the backlash because I can’t be arsed to be drawn into the hype of upcoming films years before they actually come out, I just want to concentrate on the films that are out now instead. I was aware that some (but certainly not all) of the backlash was focused on the fact that the new film would feature four women as the Ghostbusters – on one level I couldn’t give two hoots who were in the roles as long as they were good, but then I realised that given women get such a crap deal in blockbusters, the decision to make it female-led felt necessary. I wanted to like the film almost instantly for having the… er, balls (okay, let’s go with ovaries) to go ahead with a decision.

Now, the notion of re-doing Ghostbusters didn’t seem quite as up there with so-far unpromised notions of Jaws and Back to the Future, but still it seemed wrong to me. Even talk of a third Ghostbusters film that would have been a sequel to the first two was in the skies for a long time, and that got my alarms ringing too. Just leave it alone, I thought. Yet when I could be bothered to give it some thought, I realised the idea wasn’t bad at all. Ghostbusters had always been more of a thing than a cast-in-stone classic, potentially very adaptable and ripe for expansion.

Then the trailer came along.

It was crap, wasn’t it? I mean, its eventual distinction of being the most unpopular film trailer ever on Youtube was most likely part of the conspiracy by disgruntled fans to purposefully get it there because they were so pissed off by the sheer notion of a Ghostbusters reboot. I believe that some of the impetus of that conspiracy was fuelled by misognyny, but I stress, I don’t believe that it was purely fuelled by that – there are lot of fans out there who simply have had their fill of mediocre-to-crap reboots. However, let’s not forget that it wasn’t a good trailer, was it? It wasn’t funny, the ghosts looked dodgy, the reworking of the theme tune sounded rubbish and some of the dialogue sounded cringey. Then there was the fact that the film had resorted to having a black character as the one non-professional all over again. The treatment of Ernie Hudson’s Winston character, acceptable-ish in the first one given that it was an expository film, not so much at all in the established sequel, was a sad example of sidelining the black character in mainstream Hollywood. It seemed like the new film was repeating the mistake, and even compounding it by emphasising the whole ‘shouty-sassy’ stereotype. And regardless of who was saying it, that whole ‘THE POWER OF PATTY COMPELS YOU!’ gag was just awful – this was one of the big jokes? Riffing off a film that came out before the original Ghostbusters came out?

Another, slightly better received trailer came along, and the best I could say about it was that it was alright. It honestly should have been the first trailer, even if it would have still lambasted simply for being a new Ghostbusters promo. Right up until last week, I was ambivalent – probably unlikely to see it unless the reviews were great. And you know what? They were! That was enough for me. Pretty much across the spectrum – great. Not even any two-star reviews! Threes and fours everywhere! Sold. I was still prepared not to be blown away – the other Feig film I had seen since Bridesmaids – 2015’s Spy – suffered from the same problems as that earlier film. Too bloody long, and too baggy, though with plenty of belly laughs, so good enough.

My opinion? It’s good!

It’s not great, but it is good.

I don’t love it as much as the original. Okay, okay, what a ridiculous thing for me to say. I’ve lived with the original since I saw it on its Christmas TV premiere back in 1987. I’ve only lived with the new film for 24 or so hours. How can it stand up to that? I also don’t love it as much as the wildly underrated Ghostbusters II, but again, that one’s been in my life since I saw it at the cinema as an eight year old back in 1989. Those two films are a special part of my life, and they always will be. Maybe this new one will be a special part of lots of other lives, and that’s a good thing. I’ve had my childhood classics – let the kids have theirs. Anyway, I’m going to avoid comparisons with the old films as best as I can, even though the film is having plenty of fun doing that itself.

The four Ghostbusters are the hoping-to-be-tenured university teacher Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig – playing it sweet and straight) who wants to bury her past as a co-author of a ‘ghosts are real’ tome lest it ruin her reputation, her former creative partner but still true-believer Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy – endearingly enthusiastic) who wants the book to reach an audience so she can pay the bills, her eccentric current partner in science Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon – live-wire), and subway worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones – warm and engaging) who encounters a ghost at work and wants in on the action.

The plot to the new one is similar enough in that we have four ghostbusters busting ghosts in New York, culminating in a big showdown, but how it gets there is refreshing enough to deliver some surprises. For instance, we actually have a human antagonist named Rowan who is deliberately unleashing the supernatural in the city, an underused but effective turn by Neil Casey as a social misfit who’s tired of being the underdog. The presence of ghosts is established and seemingly popularised instantly, but is thwarted by the Mayor (Andy F****n’ Garcia!) who wants to keep all of this hush-hush so as not to panic the city. However, Rowan’s plan to bring about spectral chaos becomes too immense to contain, leading to an all-out explosion of ghostly shenanigans, and to quote the second film, when shit happens, who you gonna call?

Okay, the good stuff – the new Ghostbusters are fine. There’s an easy-going, natural chemistry between them and they all get a chance to shine. It’s early days, and new characters take getting used to, so it’s too soon for me to say how well this new team works, but early signs are promising I really do hope this film gets a sequel to enhance all of this. Wiig and McCarthy are effortlessly funny and have a good, believable friendship going on between them. The obvious stand out turn is from McKinnon, with her (animated version) Egon-style haircut and infectiously gleeful performance providing much of the film’s energy. Jones, despite being responsible for the trailer’s worst bit, is also funny. These are funny people. I like them. They work well together. Enough said. The thing is, these characters are literally female of course, but their femaleness is not the be all and end all – they’re regular people, regular characters, certainly not sexualised or solely defined by their gender. We’re not talking about four Lara Crofts or male fantasy stereotypes here. For that the film and all involved should be congratulated. It’s so depressing that in this day and age, there are no female-led adventure/action films. It’s just a given that the women are sidelined or their ‘strength’ is boiled down to their ability to be able to give as good as the guys when it comes to a punch-up. This needs to be rectified. Ghostbusters is a start.

What else? Well, despite fearing that it all looked a bit too much like Luigi’s Mansion for the Nintendo Gamecube in the trailers, the vividly colourful look of the ghosts is actually quite cool in the film itself. Some of the ghosts look great, especially a short-lived but properly creepy mannequin ghost half-way through. Supporting performances are excellent, especially Chris Hemsworth as the ladies’ secretary, who may very well be the stupidest on-screen character since Brick in Anchorman. It’s wonderful to see Garcia back on the big screen, and his reaction to being called the worst thing a Mayor could ever be called is priceless. Charles Dance also has a cool, brief appearance near the start. Unlike Feig’s earlier works, the film is not too long. It’s just right. That will probably change when the extended cut arrives on home video, but hopefully the new stuff will add rather than subtract from the film’s impact.

Okay, the not so good stuff. It’s not scary. Oh, how I wish it could have been scary. It’s a film about ghosts! Bring on the fear! I’m not talking hardcore horror – it’s a family film (crack jokes not withstanding) after all, but aside from the occasional very mild spooky bit, I don’t see this one giving children nightmares. What? Giving children nightmares? How horrible! That’s right! Scary kids films are the best! The lack of fear means the big ending, as fun as it is, lacks any kind of real dramatic weight. Okay, I’m going to bring up the original here – the first one had the kind of serious scares that were thrilling to a younger viewer – entry-points to more adult horror, for sure. Stuff like the demon in the fridge, any of the terror dog bits, and yes, the librarian at the start. They counter-balanced the humour beautifully and both elements enhanced each other. There was a real sense of escalating tension in the first one, but here it all just kind of cruises in medium-gear.

Now to some of the humour. Now this film is funny (though not as witty as the originals), but the film seems to be too aware that it’s being funny, if you know what I mean? I understand it must be difficult to rein in your enthusiasm when you’re making a film like this, but there was a bit too much of an ‘awesome!’ vibe that sometimes left me cold, and ‘awesome!’ is an exclamation I could happily do without hearing in any film, ever, from now on. It’s been said that the enjoyment of a film is in inverse proportion to the enjoyment the actors had making it, and while that’s a severe test, it’s true that sometimes watching actors get off on their own jokes can get a bit annoying. Having Hemsworth dance through the end credits is an example of such overkill, I thought. However, such self-indulgent stuff really worked in Ghostbusters II because the actors had pretty much earned the right to have a laugh, riff and enjoy themselves because we’d all been through the first film together and it was like a wonderful reunion of some sorts. The guys had already proved their worth in the first one, and they could afford to be a lot more easy-going, self-reflexive and naturally hilarious as a result. I think we could have saved the indulgences of this new Ghostbusters film for its sequel, which, I repeat, I hope we do get. We have a good thing going here. It could be a great thing.

Also, the cameos. The best one is the homage to Harold Ramis, seen near the start. I thought that was wonderful. The others range from slightly awkward (Bill Murrary), cute (Annie Potts, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson) to just baffling (Sigourney Weaver). Oh yeah, Slimer is back too, with a girlfriend. How does that work? In fact, I don’t want to know. I think the film could have done without these appearance to be honest. They just distract. And yes, the new takes on the theme are not great. That was always going to be a tough one, to be fair.

So speaking as someone who rates Ghostbusters as one of his favourite films, who adores the first two seasons of the cartoon version and who thinks that Ghostbusters II is probably the most underrated sequel ever, this new one is a welcome addition to the canon. Compared to what has preceeded it, it falls short, but on its own terms it is most enjoyable. Go for it.

PS: I can never be bothered with star ratings and whatnot, but to counteract the suspiciously low rating on the Internet Movie Database, I assigned it the mark I felt it deserved. 6/10.