The ominous and haunting score of Joker set moviegoers everywhere abuzz since the film’s premier in October of 2019. This audience enthusiasm was heightened by the critical acclaim Joker’s score received, winning the film the “Best Original Score” award at numerous 2020 ceremonies including the Academy Awards (AKA the Oscars) and the Golden Globe Awards. Nearly everyone agrees that the music in Joker is a large part of what made this film such a success, but what is it that made this particular soundtrack so effective? And who can we thank for creating and selecting this music?
Joker’s much celebrated original score (music written specifically for the film) is the brain baby of the incredible Icelandic composer and musician, Hildur Guðnadóttir. Her classical training in cello began in childhood and she later pursued studies in composition and new media at the Iceland Academy of the Arts and Universität der Künste Berlin¹. Guðnadóttir’s training is clearly evident in this film score as she highlights the cello and its beautiful versatility throughout the film.
This film’s soundtrack is not only made up of Guðnadóttir’s music. Joker is peppered throughout with preexisting songs (some the audience will most likely recognize, others that are lesser known). These songs were selected and approved by the film’s music supervisor, Randall Poster, and director Todd Phillips². This combination of Guðnadóttir’s beautifully unconventional orchestral score and Poster’s song selections creates a dynamic and compelling sonic backdrop for this pleasantly disturbing film.
What does it mean for a movie soundtrack to be dynamic and compelling? How is this achieved? Before we can look at how the original score and the selected preexisting songs work together, we must first understand a little more about why Guðnadóttir’s music is so (aptly) celebrated.
Guðnadóttir uses extended techniques of string instruments to create a tense, eerie, and appropriately unsettling tone. Extended techniques are non-traditional methods of creating sound from an instrument. For example, some extended techniques on a cello involve moving the bow higher (closer to the neck) or lower (closer to the bridge) than normal on the strings to produce a thinner, glassier, harsher, or more scratchy sound than a typical classical cello. This serves to transform the pristine or austere sound of a string instrument into something rawer, more suspenseful, and more sinister. Guðnadóttir regularly utilizes these techniques in the Joker score to emphasize the breaking points of certain pitches, much in the same way the film documents the many breaking points of Arthur as he becomes further removed from his morality and his society.
Significantly, Hildur Guðnadóttir composed all of the main themes of this score before Joker was filmed³. She found the script so compelling that she completed much of her work before the film was shot. As a result, her music inspired certain aspects of the acting and other components of Joker. This symbiotic relationship is not normal in filmmaking. Usually, music is added to a film in post-production (after everything has been shot), and therefore doesn’t influence the acting or visuals. Joker, however, was deeply intertwined with its musical components from the very beginning. This makes Guðnadóttir’s work especially integral in Joker’s success.
So, we know that Guðnadóttir’s score was important in the creation and execution of Joker, but how did it interact with the other songs selected for this film? The songs selected to fill out the soundtrack for Joker function largely to place the viewer in the temporal setting of the film. Most of the songs included on the soundtrack are from the 1960s and early ‘70s (those few that are from a later date are still in the style of ‘60s and ‘70s songs). These songs are a collection of ragtime, jazz, swing (or “big band” music – a subgenre of jazz), folk music, and rock. They contribute to the feeling of an old-timey carnival, with the Joker as the twisted main attraction. In general, Guðnadóttir’s score represents Arthur’s internal emotional experiences while the other songs are more to establish the setting and tone of Gotham and the places Arthur visits therein. This is furthered by the fact that much of the selected songs included in the soundtrack are diegetic (existing within the film’s world and heard by the characters). For example, the ‘60s folk song “My Name Is Carnival” by Jackson C. Frank plays on the radio as Arthur leaves the locker room of his work. Arthur even mentions this song later when he is talking to his therapist.
The rock music in Joker is included sparingly. It does not contribute to the carnival feeling of the film that I mentioned, but instead is used when Arthur is fully embracing the character of the Joker and all the potential wrongdoing that comes along with it. For example, “White Room” by Cream (1968) plays while the Joker is in the police car looking out at Gotham in revolt.
Were there any original songs in Joker that were not composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir? Yes! Before concluding this article, I want to make sure I give due credit to the composers who contributed to Joker’s score without receiving much recognition. The swing music introductions to The Murray Show are short, but they are also fun, upbeat, and fit so seamlessly into the scene that it is easy to believe you are actually watching an old television show. The song we hear when Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) first enters the screen on his show, “Murray’s Theme,” was composed by Judson Crane and Mark Hollingsworth. Later on in the film we hear “Murray’s Late Night” by Bill O’Connell. I applaud these composers for writing songs so appropriate and indicative of TV introductions that they slip by unnoticed as part of Joker’s celebrated score.
Overall, Joker’s soundtrack is comprised of an unexpected and highly effective combination of Hildur Guðnadóttir’s eerie orchestral music (performed by her and the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra) and popular jazz tunes from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Guðnadóttir uses extended techniques in the string instruments and unusually metallic or mechanical percussion instruments (in addition to traditional low orchestral timpani) to create a sound that transcends time as it combines beautiful classical instruments with a rich musical history and newer techniques and sound editing technologies. This provides an emotional undercurrent to the world of Gotham which is established, in part, by the other songs included throughout the film. Many reviewers have proclaimed that Joker is worth a watch. I firmly believe it is also worth a listen.
Music recommendations! If you enjoyed the score for Joker then I recommend that you listen to the Macbeth Original Motion Picture Soundtrack by Jed Kurzel (from 2015), starting with the titular track, “Macbeth.” Many of the songs from that score use extended techniques on string instruments very similar to those used by Hildur Guðnadóttir. If you enjoyed the older swing music then I recommend listening to the classic song “Swing, Swing, Swing” by Benny Goodman and checking out anything by The Brian Setzer Orchestra (they are a big band brought together by the guitarist who originally played with the rockabilly band Stray Cats). If you liked the piano rag at the beginning of the movie (Temptation Rag by Claude Bolling) then I recommend looking into the music of famous pianist and composer Scott Joplin. And finally, if you enjoyed the crooner music then I point you to some classics: Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, and Louis Armstrong. Happy listening!