Soundtrack review: Joker (Hildur Guonadottir – 2019)
“Joker” is a 2019 American psychological thriller film directed and produced by Todd Phillips, who co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver. The film, based on DC Comics characters, stars Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker. Joker provides a possible origin story for the character; set in 1981, it follows Arthur Fleck, a failed stand-up comedian whose descent into insanity and nihilism inspires a violent counter-cultural revolution against the wealthy in a decaying Gotham City. Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, and Marc Maron appear in supporting roles.
Phillips conceived Joker in 2016 and wrote the script with Silver throughout 2017. The two were inspired by 1970s character studies and the films of Martin Scorsese (particularly Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy), who was initially attached to the project as a producer. The graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke (1988) was the basis for the premise, but Phillips and Silver otherwise did not look to specific comics for inspiration. The music was written by Hildur Guðnadóttir. She was for years a close collaborator of the late and dearly missed Johan Johannsson but for the past couple of years she has found her own voice and had a stellar 2019 with “Chernobyl” and “Joker”.
I’ve seen “Joker” four times. It’s not an easy movie to watch as it has enough disturbing moments and Arthur’s life and transformation are painful. Each time I watched it, the music score that was first subdued and rarely obvious started to grow on me. It’s a cello based score, often quiet, sometimes supported by the rest of the orchestra but it’s that cello and its bow acting like the sharpest knife that steal the show. The more I watched the movie the more the sound stuck to it and moved with it and it became like the Joker’s makeup: an integral part of the whole, something that will never come off no matter what; it might have started as a separate entity, as an accessory added to the overall image but now I cannot imagine this movie and the character without Hildur’s dark and oppressive sound. I know it was recorded in a regular setting but I imagine the soloist and the rest of the orchestra stuck in a cold and wet basement, the cello in one room, the rest of the orchestra in another and the sound traveling between the two.
It’s hard to find highlights in this cohesive composition but there are subtle changes in warmth as a cue like “Young Penny” is more relatable and sweeter than most, like a child coming in from the winter cold in need of a cuddle. “A bad comedian” is also quieter and less aggressive. I admit I only noticed these nuances after I watched the movie as it all became more familiar, more understandable. The first time I heard the score outside the context of the film I did not enjoy it a lot but naturally it grew on me as I became more attentive. Sometimes it reminds me of the pain and loneliness of Clint Mansell’s “The wrestler”, that implacable sounds that we all know will lead to doom.
Hildur’s score meant a lot for the production of the movie as well. She began writing the music way before the filming started and Todd Phillips played pieces of it on the set. This reminded me of how Terrance Mallick worked with Hans Zimmer on “The thin red line”. The music actually helped create and define of the more iconic scenes of the movie, the “Bathroom dance”; as those involved mentioned, they were at a bit of a standstill regarding that scene and then Joaquin Phoenix remembered that piece of music and that’s how the dance came about and changed the dynamic and feel of the scene. It’s the turning point in Arthur’s descent and transformation and the music marks that.
“Joker” is obviously not a score for everyone. It’s twisted, it’s full of angst. But just like the Joker’s own makeup and smile might not make a lot of sense on their own, without being applied on the main character so the music is much better enjoyed the way it was meant to me, that is in the context of the film. For me, after a few listens, it became enjoyable on its own as well. Also, if you are a fan of the disturbed cello you will enjoy the music more than others.
Cue rating: 74 / 100
Call me Joker