I think nobody really missed the premiere of Todd Philips’ dark, disturbing, unexpected take on the origin story of Batman’s fiercest arch-enemy. Probably it’s going to be one of the best films of this decade, not only because of Joaquin Phoenix’s mesmerizing acting, but also with the refreshing take this movie has regarding stories in the DC universe. There are no big fight sequences (which even the moody Christopher Nolan couldn’t avoid in his version of the Batman myth), no moving speeches about justice and freedom and the waving of US flags, nothing of that, just anger and alienation.
For those who haven’t yet watched it: go see it, you still have a chance. And fear not: I won’t give any spoilers here.
The movie is about a man called Arthur, who has a condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably. He works as a clown, but gets fired from his job. He is poor, malnourished, suffers from mental illness, and has to take care of his mother, who is even more mentally ill than he is and can’t take care of herself. She is obsessed with sending letters to Thomas Wayne, a millionaire for whom she worked as a cleaning lady many years ago. Yes, he is the father of Bruce Wayne, the future Batman, but the story takes place while Bruce is still quite young and his parents are still alive. During the course of the story, Arthur will face more and more intensely the unfairness of the decaying society in Gotham city, plagued with poverty and homelessness. Through this journey into darkness, Arthur discovers his true identity and, eventually, embraces it fully.
For the film, Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir (good luck with that last name) composed a score that goes beyond the action, and into the psychological world of Arthur/The Joker. This made me think about a point that a great teacher of mine, Jurre Haanstra, always stresses in his lessons: music in film always has a specific perspective. In a film such as Joker, what this perspective is can help us understand and judge the actions of the main character in different and sometimes contradictory ways.
Guðnadóttir, in my opinion, wrote a score that is 100% with the Joker. She takes us into his world, into what he thinks, what he feels. The film is about his own journey, with many closeups of the Joker’s face, his body, his skin, his eyes, his hands, his mouth grotesquely deformed by his uncontrollable laughter. For this, Guðnadóttir employs different techniques.
First, she uses a single interval as a main motif for the whole score: a minor third. This interval is quite peculiar since it suggests both major (“happy”) and minor (“sad”) modes, this ambiguity is very present in the film, where on one hand we have the horror of Arthur’s life and of Gotham’s streets, and on the other we have the beauty of the moments when Arthur begins discovering himself. As he embraces darkness more and more, this motif becomes more and more ambiguous: we can’t help but feel sympathetic towards him, and admire the beauty of his transformation, while at the same time we understand rationally that he is becoming one of the most cruel villains of the DC universe.
Then, we can see that, in terms of orchestration, the music also grows with the character. The minor-third-motif begins very softly with pizzicati on the double basses and very soft timpani, growing to a soulful cello solo, to some huge orchestral tutti in the moments of greatest tension. Even if we don’t understand rationally the inner workings of the soundtrack, we can still feel how the music grows and fills us with Arthur’s emotions. The music grows and shrinks organically, sometimes even unnoticeably, and this makes it relate very directly to the unpredictable character of Arthur and also to the growing energy inside him.
The music is also quite minimalistic, not in the Ludovico Einaudi way (at some point I’ll write a whole roast about his music, but not yet…), but rather in the sense that she employs very few layers of elements at the same time. For example, the track Defeated Clown is just a fragmented melody in octaves on the strings with an ostinato rhythm in the percussion, with a very subtle drown in the background. This helps give the sense of a looming danger or a growing madness inside Arthur’s mind, like a chained tiger walking round and round in its cage (sorry about the Rilke reference, but I had to). This simplicity also keeps the story in perspective. Even though it has a background of great social unrest in Gotham, the story doesn’t make any great statements about justice and humanity, but rather focuses on the tragedy (or comedy?) of a single human being. Guðnadóttir also helps keep this perspective by keeping her material as simple as possible.
Perspective can change everything. If the music instead was focused on the wider story of Gotham’s unrest, or if it would rather focus only on his cruelty and not on his suffering, we would interpret Arthur’s actions very differently. In this film, the music also gives a sense of beauty and sympathy for the villain and his journey of self-discovery. The character grows, and the music with him. Since music is such an abstract and unconscious medium, we can’t help but feel taken by it into whatever direction it takes us. I would challenge anyone who has watched the film to tell me if they still think the Joker is such an evil figure after all.
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