Home > Reviews > JOKER – Hildur Guðnadóttir

JOKER – Hildur Guðnadóttir

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

In this era where super hero movies are a dime a dozen, where in the past 30 years we’ve had at least three Supermen, five Batmen, three Spider-Men, and innumerable iterations of other DC and Marvel comic book characters, it was only a matter of time before someone tried to do something completely out-of-the-box different. While the majority of these films concentrate on the heroes, perhaps the most iconic villain in all of comic book history is the Joker, the long-standing nemesis of Batman. He has been portrayed on film multiple times himself; by Cesar Romero in 1966, by Jack Nicholson in 1989, by Heath Ledger in 2008, and by Jared Leto most recently in 2016, with Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance in The Dark Knight coming to be considered the gold standard. There have been multiple origin stories for the character, but he has never been the sole focus of a film before – until now.

Joker, which was directed by Todd Phillips and written by Phillips with Scott Silver, is a super hero film without any super heroes, a comic book film set very firmly in something approaching real life. Batman exists in this world – or, at least, he will – but anyone expecting a traditional DC film will be sorely, sorely mistaken. It’s a bleak, dark, violent, nihilistic look at mental illness and how it is exacerbated by a world that doesn’t give a crap. It’s a film that invites you to empathize with the genuinely heartbreaking plight of a social outcast, someone who has been dealt the worst possible hand at every point in his life, but then turns around and asks you to consider cheering when that outcast turns to violent vigilantism in the worst possible way. It’s a combination of Martin Scorsese – think Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy – and Michael Winner’s Death Wish, if Charles Bronson wore clown makeup and suffered a psychotic break. Is this person a hero or a villain? Do his shitty circumstances make his reaction to them understandable, or is he just an unstable mass shooter wannabe who needs to be stopped rather than satiated? It’s a tough conversation, made more difficult by the fact that Joker offers no easy answers. The film is anchored by Joaquin Phoenix’s riveting lead performance, who makes his Joker a mess of protruding ribs, mirthless laughter, and twitchy chain-smoking anxiety.

The film is very stylish from a visual standpoint, boasting beautifully de-saturated cinematography by Lawrence Sher, and uncomfortably grimy production design by Mark Friedberg, but perhaps the most important technical aspect of the film is the score by Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir. Anyone who reads this website regularly knows that I have been tough on Guðnadóttir’s music; I didn’t particularly like any of the work she did with the late Jóhann Jóhansson on things like Mary Magdalene, I thought her score for the Sicario sequel Day of the Soldado was a weak follow up to the original, and I thought her Emmy-winning score for Chernobyl was appalling. She has always struck me as a composer whose natural musical tendencies are the polar opposite to mine, in that they lack the emotional content I crave, she tends to favor drones and simple rhythms over identifiable melodies, and it is usually limited in its instrumental palette to little more than synths and sometimes a solo cello. I hate writing things like this about Guðnadóttir especially, because God knows we need more successful female film composers in the world, but I have to be fair with both my praise and my criticism, irrespective of the composer’s gender, and my taste is my taste.

As such, I was both astonished and very pleased to find that Joker is mostly a triumph. The score offers a profound leap forward for Guðnadóttir in terms of the scope of the music, its emotional impact in context, and the way it addresses the film’s key issues with directness and specificity. It’s still a score that is rooted in the familiar cello/synth combination, but the way she expands it in key moments to incorporate a much larger orchestral sound, and even occasionally a choir, is impressive. Whereas to me Chernobyl felt entirely detached from the project it accompanied, coming across as little more than glorified sound effects, Joker is completely essential to the way the audience experiences the film, giving life and depth to Phoenix’s portrayal, sometimes commenting on the external forces affecting him, and other times allowing the things deep within him to come to the fore.

In an interview with Tim Grieving for NPR, Guðnadóttir says of the character “He’s trying to actually bring joy to the world, and just doesn’t really succeed because of outer circumstances that really affect his inner turbulence. I was just really sympathetic towards that. It’s very tragic. So, I thought it was important that he was allowed to kind of have this softer side.” As such, Guðnadóttir wrote what is essentially a cello requiem for the character, and had already written her theme for him before the film even began shooting, based purely on her visceral reaction to the screenplay. That initial cello recording – it’s actually performed on an electric cello instrument called the halldorophone, which Guðnadóttir helped develop – was played on-set in one key scene, the “Bathroom Dance,” where Arthur Fleck’s fragile psyche finally breaks and he almost literally transforms on-screen into his insane alter-ego. This music is the music inside the character’s head, and Joaquin Phoenix is actually dancing and contorting to Guðnadóttir’s writing at that time.

However, whereas the cello is the Joker’s inner voice, the more orchestral side of the music is intended to represent the outside forces that place pressure on his fragile mind so hard until it breaks. In the same NPR interview, Guðnadóttir says “The very beginning piece, you almost only hear the cello, but as we get further into the movie, the orchestra gets louder and louder, and then it kind of suffocates the cello. It’s almost like the empathy that we have for his character is led by the cello, and then his darker side, his inner turmoil, is the orchestra, which starts out almost inaudibly, and then just slowly takes over as we get further in.” As the score develops these two worlds collide – Arthur’s isolated cello, and the cacophony of the orchestra representing the outside world – until the whole thing erupts during its final act.

But this is not to say any of Joker makes for especially pleasant listening, because it doesn’t. Guðnadóttir’s music is often as bleak and challenging as the film itself, and the tortured groans and howls that come from the cello are intentionally twisted, like the inner thoughts of the lead character. There is a main theme for the character – you can hear it clearly, front and center, in cues like “Defeated Clown,” “Meeting Bruce Wayne,” and “Arthur Comes to Sophie”. The music drowns in sorrow, wallows in self-pity, and seethes with barely-contained fury, and it’s not something that you’re going to be whistling as you leave the theater. This music is a nightmarish reflection of a tortured soul, and it never lets you forget that. Having said that, I do like the deconstructed, lighter, slightly dreamy version of the theme in “Young Penny,” where the melody switches to high, quivering violins and offers a strange reflection of Arthur’s rose-tinted view of his childhood

Cue such as “Hoyt’s Office,” “Following Sophie,” “Penny in the Hospital,” “Hiding in the Fridge,” “A Bad Comedian,” and “Confession” feature the Joker solo cello idea prominently too, where it is often underpinned with doom-laden drums, metallic rhythms, and electronic atmospherics. In many of these cues Guðnadóttir allows her cello sounds to really create some forceful sonic carnage, enormous booming chords that bubble and churn with great intensity. Occasionally some of these chords remind me of the ‘braaaahms’ from Hans Zimmer’s Inception, which I suppose is still de rigeur, while elsewhere the dissonance is so highly charged and vivid that it’s almost physically painful to listen to the music.

The pivotal “Subway” sequence is one of the most important scenes, musically, as it is here that Guðnadóttir brings her brass section into the score for the first time, offering a pulsating, probing sound that offsets against the Joker theme and essentially causes his first act of terrible violence to occur – the way the two styles collide, and the way the electronic sound design howls around it, is really very effective indeed. The equally pivotal “Bathroom Dance,” which I mentioned earlier, brings the choir into the mix for the first time too, juxtaposing the brutal darkness of the Joker theme and the associated cello chords with an almost angelic vocal element that is enormously powerful in context. “Penny Taken to the Hospital” is also a standout, a lively dance full of energetic pulses and clever contrapuntal rhythms. Joker’s theme is a part of the mix here too, but it is all full of surprisingly elegant movement and energy.

The action music in “Escape from the Train” uses an array of clattering percussion ideas, groaning cellos, and great fat brass chords to illustrate the chaos and madness of the scene where Arthur outwits two NYPD cops on his trail and manipulates circumstances so that they are essentially lynched by a carriage full of Joker wannabes wearing copycat masks. The conclusive “Call Me Joker” brings everything together – the Joker cello theme, the associated string textures, the insistent percussion rhythms – with a sense of poignant destiny that makes the finale of the film incredibly effective. Arthur is a ticking time bomb, fighting against his own primal urges and the sense of injustice he feels in the face of a world that doesn’t care; Guðnadóttir somehow manages to find that middle ground where you sympathize for the character, while also hating what he has become, and knowing that a moment of awful violence and brutality is just around the corner. The enormous brass statement of the main theme that concludes the cue is just perfect.

My friend, the film music journalist and broadcaster Erik Woods, describes the score for Joker as ‘17 tracks of utter soul sucking depression,’ and he’s not wrong about that in any way, but my personal takeaway from this is that – for the first time ever – I get where Hildur Guðnadóttir is coming from, and why the score sounds the way it does. As a musical depiction of a fractured mind, of a man who just wants to be loved and to make people happy but who constantly has the life and soul beaten out of him by an indifferent world, the music makes perfect sense. It also somehow does the unthinkable – it makes you care about this man who does these heinous things; it humanizes him, and almost makes you feel like his lashing out at the faceless masses who hate him is justified, even warranted. That’s an uncomfortable feeling to have, especially in our current social climate where 4chan incels and other internet sub-cultures incite each other to violence, and it’s to the credit of all those involved in the film that it is inspiring these sorts of conversations.

From a purely musical point of view, I also feel like Joker is Guðnadóttir’s most technically accomplished score to date, and the way she blends the cello-and-electronica work for which she is most famous with an increased orchestral and choral presence is impressive. The fact that there is an identifiable and prominent main theme running through the score is to be commended too; it may seem like obviousness to a lot of people, but this feels like new territory for Guðnadóttir and I want to give credit where credit is due. Given the critical acclaim and award-winning success of Chernobyl, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the score for Joker is a major player at the upcoming Academy Awards; it’s not something I would personally vote for based on my own musical taste, but you could definitely justify its inclusion on any short lists. It does a ton of heavy lifting in context, and is exactly the sort of thing that is likely to capture the film music zeitgeist as it stands in 2019.

Buy the Joker soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Hoyt’s Office (1:25)
  • Defeated Clown (2:39)
  • Following Sophie (1:33)
  • Penny in the Hospital (1:18)
  • Young Penny (2:02)
  • Meeting Bruce Wayne (4:36)
  • Hiding in the Fridge (1:23)
  • A Bad Comedian (1:28)
  • Arthur Comes to Sophie (1:39)
  • Looking for Answers (0:51)
  • Penny Taken to the Hospital (1:49)
  • Subway (3:34)
  • Bathroom Dance (2:08)
  • Learning How to Act Normal (1:18)
  • Confession (1:29)
  • Escape from the Train (2:31)
  • Call Me Joker (4:49)

Running Time: 36 minutes 33 seconds

Watertower Music (2019)

Music composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir. Conducted by Jeff Atmajian. Orchestrations by Jeff Atmajian, Andrew Kinney, Philip Klein and Carl Rydlund. Recorded and mixed by Alex Vengeur, Simon Goff, Antonio Pulli, Jason Schimmel and Daniel Kresco. Edited by Jason Ruder. Album produced by Hildur Guðnadóttir and Sam Slater.

  1. October 13, 2019 at 6:48 am

    Fantastic review John and very fair considering your thoughts on her score to Chernobyl. I saw the movie yesterday and concur with your thought. I was blown away by the score and disturbed by the film….which, of course, we are supposed to be. I look forward to her future scores.

  2. Jakub
    October 15, 2019 at 2:07 am

    Any thouhgts on CDR presentation?

    • Marco Ludema
      October 21, 2019 at 6:33 am

      Yeah, I’ve actually been wondering, what’s the exact difference between CD and CDR?

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