The Music of JOKER

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The Music of JOKER

Bennett Johnson

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As one of the most controversial films of the year, JOKER continued to spark heated debate when it topped the list of Oscar-nominees, receiving eleven nods including best actor, best director and best original music score. Whatever your opinions are of the movie or its director, Todd Philips, it must be acknowledged that JOKER made its presence felt on the cinematic world. I will admit I was excited to see this movie, and did leave the theater feeling that I got my money’s worth. Yet I am not eager to watch the film again anytime soon. Watching it was a grating and painful experience. The movie makes viewers feel unpleasant and delights itself in doing so.

Mixed Feelings

One of my biggest issues with JOKER concerned the plot. The character motivations and conflicts were not anything novel. Society abandons a loner with mental health issues. That loner then lashes out in a maniacal and violent way in response. I also could not shake the feeling that many of the works director Todd Phillips drew upon (like Taxi Driver and King of Comedy) were more akin to borrowed material as opposed to inspirational material. However, instead of dwelling on these elements of the plot after watching the movie, I was more interested in the soundtrack.

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in Todd Philip’s JOKER

The Score

Created by Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, the JOKER score is one of the strongest elements of the film. Guðnadóttir is no novice to the film and television scoring industry. She has produced award-winning works for the likes of Chernobyl, The Oath, and Mary Magdalene. Her work for JOKER is perhaps her best yet.

Despite the maniacal nature of a character like the Joker, the soundtrack is not a frenzied mess. There is a clear downward direction. The sounds themselves come off as isolated and lonesome, calling out in a vast and empty space. You can feel the grating of the horsehair bows on the string instruments. See the empty space between each melancholic note. The main cue heard throughout the score resonates like a familiar feeling of sadness, growing more somber from the opening scene until Joaquin Phoenix’s character Arthur reaches his breaking point. The slow and methodical thud of the percussion is reminiscent of Arthur slowly taking steps into criminal madness.

Cultivating Emotion

Guðnadóttir began working on the soundtrack while the movie was still in its early stages of production. This is in contrast to most movies where the composer constructs the soundtrack after production has nearly finished. This unique approach allowed Guðnadóttir to develop her sound based upon the script, and granted her greater control over the tone and pacing of the movie. As Guðnadóttir mentioned in an interview with Rolling Stone, this control made scenes like Arthur’s bathroom dance possible, as Phoenix was able to react to the emotions cultivated by the score. Clearly this approach has paid off, as Guðnadóttir has landed an Oscar nomination for the soundtrack.

While digesting these elements, I found myself comparing the music to the score of another acclaimed movie featuring the Joker, The Dark Knight. In Christopher Nolan’s interpretation, a very different tone is felt with the score, given that the film focuses heavily on Christian Bale’s Batman character. However, comparing the musical themes when Joker is present in each movie, it is clear Guðnadóttir had a desire to create something not as lush and expansive as fellow composer Hans Zimmer. There is less purity in the sounds and fewer voices are competing for your attention. Thus, a more grim outlook is relayed.

Final Thoughts

Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir

My favorite song from the soundtrack, “Defeated Clown,” encapsulates this grim outlook. The track is rather reserved, featuring forlorn strings, steady timpani hits, and a foreboding atmospheric pad in the background. Another standout is “Subway”. A more uptempo song, many of the sounds used feel similar to the rusted, vandalized, and downtrodden subway setting where the song plays in the movie. The track brings out less empathy than others. Instead, serves as more of a warning about where Arthur is headed.

While my feelings on JOKER remain mixed, the soundtrack is one of the best aspects of the film. The score is dark, eerie, and gritty. It brings out the heart of who the Joker is as a character. The movie has enough good moments for me believe it will stand the test of time as something that changed our perception of what a comic book movie can be, in large part thanks to the score. Trust me when I say—the soundtrack is no joke.

You can listen to the full soundtrack and see more of Guðnadóttir’s work here.

K-UTE Radio/University of Utah do not own any images in this piece.