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The musical birth of a villain

Nov 14, 2019
Since its release in October, DC’s latest movie – Joker – has not only become one of the highest grossing films of the year, but one of the most talked about too. Offering a new take on the life of one of the most infamous and unpredictable villains in comic book history, the film follows the rise of the Joker (Joaquin Phoenix) – and the simultaneous fall of his unassuming foil, Arthur Fleck. And as a result of Hildur Guðnadóttir’s perfectly pitched score, it’s a journey not only explored visually, but through sound, too.

With a resumé that includes composition on critically acclaimed films like The Revenant, Sicario, and recently, the Emmy-winning series Chernobyl, Guðnadóttir is certainly no stranger to a blockbuster – and a dark one at that. For the Icelandic composer, it’s all about establishing an emotional connection with the character, and she did this with Joker before filming even began. She responded to the script by writing a tender, melancholy requiem for the troubled man – where the cello remains present throughout.

As the film begins, we find Arthur working in a dead-end job, isolated and lost in an increasingly bleak Gotham City. When he’s attacked during a day at work, we hear the first piece of music – and it’s the lonely cello that takes centre stage.
PHMG blog Hildur Guðnadóttir quote
The angrier and angrier Joaquin Phoenix’s character gets throughout the film, the louder and bigger the orchestra becomes – culminating in the shocking final scenes. But one of the most interesting moments in the film – and one where undoubtedly the music is the focus ¬– is during a pivotal scene in a subway bathroom, when Joker has performed an act that propels him down the darkest path of all. He dances with complete freedom, totally consumed in the moment, as one of the film’s strongest, most physical pieces of music is heard. And it turns out it was very much an authentic reaction from Phoenix, and from the entire camera crew, as the whole scene was shot in response to the music – an incredibly rare thing for a movie. In an interview with Jimmy Kimmel, the actor states that it’s this scene that “illustrates his transformation into Joker in a non-verbal way” and that his performance was “completely influenced by the score”. It makes his acting seem all the more real, and is one of the moments that contributes heavily to the consuming nature of the film.

As Joker’s madness accelerates, we hear the final and triumphant track; ‘Call Me Joker’. Hildur Guðnadóttir finally finds resolution in the cello theme that she’s been building throughout, and allows the electronic elements to reach an ecstatic pitch as Arthur bids a final farewell to his sanity. It’s almost as if the character has been awakened as to who he really is and why he has never fit into society – and that powerful moment is perfectly captured through sound.

Since The Joker character first appeared in the Batman comic book all the way back in 1940, he’s been a figure that’s inspired fear, anger, and very little sympathy in audiences. But with Joaquin Phoenix’s latest portrayal, there’s a sense of humanity found in the character for the first time, and the score plays an important role in drawing out those opportunities for empathy. Music is vital to the story of this film, which makes it all the more important to note that when creating the sound of your own story, making sure it’s right is certainly no joke.