Soundtrack Review: Hildur Guðnadóttir – Joker

Joker directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix was released on the 4th of October (ok ok, I’m late to the party). Although a visually stunning masterpiece showcasing jaw-dropping acting and directing, I found myself getting absorbed in the soundtrack. So… let me just steal a few minutes out of your day to demonstrate how Joker (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) by Hildur Guðnadóttir is flippin’ brill. [WARNING: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS]

Hildur Guðnadóttir is a classically trained cellist from Iceland. Immediately then, the deep booming echoes of the cello throughout the soundtrack make perfect sense. Guðnadóttir herself has even suggested that the cello motif denotes Arthur Fleck, the protagonist, which throws an interesting light on the later tracks where the cello becomes indiscernible amongst the string section (but more on that later, wahey). She has previously performed on various film scores as well as composing the soundtrack for the TV mini-series Chernobyl which won her a Prime Time Emmy Award. An interesting thing about her work with Todd Phillips on Joker is that she actually wrote the composition with the script alone, whereas usually the soundtrack is created with the shot footage already completed. This lends a really interesting relationship between the film and the music because they work and grow together in a really close environment – you just wait until we get to the bathroom dance scene!!!

Guðnadóttir via allaboutjazz.com

Okay, let’s tuck in. I’m going to start with this idea of the cello aiding with the storytelling, specifically with Arthur. ‘Defeated Clown’ brings to attention the image of Arthur Fleck lying in the puddles after being beaten up by some kids. One of the first tracks, both on the album and in the movie, it’s sparser than some of the later ones. The lonely cello plays both major and minor scales, in some form or another, which creates an air of unpredictability, even unease. Indeed, if the cello is the instrument of Arthur, this is one of the dark moments of confusion and distaste the protagonist experiences. Another important moment is the one on the subway, where Arthur kills three Wayne Enterprise employees after they beat him up. ‘Subway’, the track playing over this moment duh, showcases screeching cello notes that are matched with incessant pounding percussion, enveloping the scene in a horrifying intensity. Note how the orchestra are getting louder and louder, coming more into the foreground in these later tracks, trying to match the dynamics of the cello. One of the most atmospheric scenes in the film, relating to the track ‘Bathroom Dance’, is where Arthur (post subway shooting) dances in a public bathroom. This track strips away the intensity from ‘Subway’, drawing our attention back to the character of Arthur and his mental state. The long drawn out notes, matched with the layered choral vocals are deeply emotive. Are you ready to be floored? Originally, Arthur’s dancing in this scene was completely unscripted (extra amazement: A similar thing happened in the opening scene with the tear!). Phoenix’s performance was a reaction to Guðnadóttir’s music, the film and the music work symbiotically. About this, speaking to Slash Magazine, she said: “Without any communication or dialogue about it, we were very much on the same page, which is a beautiful, collaborative, and dialogue-free process.” In this scene, it’s almost like the cello and Arthur become one.

Aside from aiding the storyline, the cello does a pretty good job reinforcing the oppressiveness and unsettledness of the film. For example, take a listen to: ‘Arthur Comes to Sophie’, ‘Learning How to Act Normal’ and ‘Confession’. The first two use high-pitched string compositions, a familiar motif for those who love horror films, to incite an claustrophobic feeling of disorientation and fear. Particularly, the long notes in ‘Learning How to Act Normal’ are DRIPPING with suspense!! ‘Confession’, which accompanies Joker’s appearance on The Murray Franklin Show, utilises the technique called sautillé (really fast bowing technique), it counteracts the previous weaker notes with a surety that just oozes with tension – listen out at 1:05!

One of the reasons this film has been so popular is because of the relationship it shares with other aspects of the Batman franchise, for example, unlike other adaptations the Joker here is much older than Bruce Wayne – even being responsible for his parents’ death. In this way there is an added layer of expectation because we know that Bruce’s vigilante future is full of vengeance and (perhaps questionable) heroism. This works its way into the soundtrack as well. A particularly interesting scene was ‘Meeting Bruce Wayne’ where in the background the percussion plays a ticking noise reminiscent of a clock, highlighting that with the passing of time there is antagonism to come.

I could probably write an entire post about the closing track, it demonstrates all the wonderful things I have written about so far… AND MORE! ‘Call Me Joker’ is the crescendo that the entire soundtrack, indeed the whole film, was leading up to. Riots have broken across Gotham, Arthur Fleck has now been transformed into the mythical icon ‘Joker’. For NPR, Guðnadóttir suggested that Arthur’s “inner turmoil, is the orchestra”, in this track the cello is indiscernible amongst the string section as the orchestra has finally overpowered the lone instrument. The inevitable transformation has been completed.

Joker (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) literally documents Arthur’s transformation in the Joker. It progressively gets darker, emphasising and aiding the themes of the film such as Gotham in decline, identity, mental health, political unrest and loss. No wonder Hildur Guðnadóttir has already won one award for it at the Venice Film Festival and I’m sure there will be many more to come.

The verdict: Hmmmmm, could definitely go for something cliché like a cream pie – but that isn’t imaginative enough. How about… a black forest gateau. Rich, layered, a little bit dangerous, unsettling boozy undertones but also not to everyone’s taste (and it still has cream in it somewhere). It’s basically deliciously dark, just like Joker (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack).

Listen for yourself:

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