The Cathartic Use of Music in JOKER

Pitched and filmed as a gritty character study of one of the most iconic villains in pop culture, Todd Phillips’ JOKER is a haunting, bold and visually stunning masterpiece. The story follows the struggles of Arthur Fleck – played by one the best actors working today, the enigmatic and versatile Joaquin Phoenix‒ an everyman who aspires to become a professional stand-up comedian and leave behind his job as a clown. The film is a tour de force. The gripping nature of this character-driven tragedy can be attributed to the ambition of the project (it walks a fine line between low-concept indie films and the comic-book movie genre that usually is synonymous of high budget and the search for maximum profit with little interest in what it can offer beyond entertainment) and Phoenix’s stellar performance. Yet, as for every motion picture, JOKER is the result of a collaborative process.

Many aspects contributed to plunging the audience into Arthur’s psyche and the descent to hell that will eventually lead him to be the Joker. For example, DoP Lawrence Sher’s choice to use the large format Arri Alexa 65 camera resulted in a shallow depth of field which allowed to connect the viewer to the character and feel a sense of intimacy. For a character study that relies on the performance of its lead actor and his relationship to his environment, this is an important choice to make. The film’s immersive narration corresponds to what in literature is called “1st person point of view” and borrows many devices, including an unreliable narrator. Many audiences never consider how important score is to a film and its crucial role is often overlooked. Music can play an especially vital role in telling a story and through themes, for instance, give a musical identity to characters. But JOKER takes this a step further by making music a key element which in the same respect as setting and backstory informs the protagonist’s characterisation and arc. Today, we are taking a look at the cathartic role of the music in the film (original score and songs) as well as its particular relationship with the filming process itself

Hildur Guðnadóttir with her first Emmy, September 15, 2019

“I sat down with the cello to kind of just find my way into his voice and into his head. And I’m just like kind of holding onto this feeling that I had after reading the script. As soon as I played those first notes, it really hit me in the chest somehow, and it was a really strong, physical reaction that I got. And I was like, yes, this is it.” ‒ Hildur Guðnadóttir (October 3, 2019 ‒ 

The entire score was thus based on the cello, a familiar instrument for the composer and one she has a strong connection to. Spontaneity, combined with that personal connection was the starting point to compose a requiem for a character who is isolated, suffers, feels both too much and not at all and has difficulties interacting with the world around him. The cello – and more specifically the halldorophone ‒ became Arthur Fleck’s voice. The halldorophone is a cello-like electro-acoustic string instrument developed by Halldór Úlfarsson whom Guðnadóttir helped on the project. To convey the character’s inner turmoil and the growth of the Joker persona, Guðnadóttir built the orchestration around the cello. As the story progresses, the orchestra becomes louder and louder, taking more space while the cello, still present, takes the place of a muffled conductor. The cello symbolises Arthur while the orchestra conveys the driving forces within him that gradually become more aggressive and boil beneath, until Arthur is pushed to his breaking point and by the end of the story, wholly embraces Joker.

“In the first scene where Joker is being beaten by a group of kids, the only instrument you can hear clearly is a lonely solo cello; what the audience doesn’t realize is there is a full orchestra behind this, which is almost hidden. You feel these bigger forces behind it from the very beginning. As his frustration grows and the film progresses, the orchestra grows too, the angrier he gets the bigger it grows. Through all of this, I wanted to ensure the music remained very simple and uncomplicated, naïve and not particularly cool – very similar to how the audience sees him.” ‒ Hildur Guðnadóttir (October 23, 2019 ‒

Guðnadóttir playing the halldorophone at the FAIR residency in Copenhagen, 2009 (credit: Halldór Úlfarsson)

There was an interesting and permanent interaction between the score and the filmmaking process. Not only did the script and the character’s voice inform the writing of the score but the opposite is also true. Before delving into strictly narrative considerations and the role of music (generally speaking) in characterisation, let’s take a look at the influence the haunting score had on filming. The best example of that is the mesmerising and unforgettable “Bathroom scene”. Initially, director Todd Phillips revealed, Fleck was to lock himself in the bathroom, throw up in the dirty toilet, hide his gun, wash-off the make-up and stare at himself in the mirror, realizing what he has done. But when with Phoenix they got on set on the day and started filming the scene, they realised it didn’t quite sound right for Arthur to behave like this.

After an hour, Phillips, says, he decided to play this particular piece of music (that is now part of the final scene) to find something else: “And it was about an hour into it and I said ‘Hey, you know, I got this piece of music from Hildur’. Hildur Gudnadottir is our composer and she’d been sending me music throughout, while we were shooting. And I just wanted to play Joaquin this piece of music. And Joaquin just started to dance to the music, and it was just me and him alone in the bathroom. There’s 250 people on the crew waiting outside and he just starts doing this dance, and we both kind of look at each other and said ‘O.K, that’s the scene’.” (October 7, 2019 ‒ The New York Times ‒ Watch Joaquin Phoenix Do a Creepy Dance in JOKER | Anatomy of a Scene video on Youtube). Music and dance were engrained in the story from the beginning but the actor’s response to the score and his ease with improvisation gave those elements an even more significant place.

In the context of telling a story, the score makes a statement about the character and lends structure and a feeling of continuity. It helps to advance the story and set the mood. Guðnadóttir’s score communicate’s Arthur’s arc and contributes to building a harrowing, oppressive atmosphere and tension. It intervenes at strategic points in the plot. As said previously, the score is a musical guide for the audience and the cello symbolises the main character. However, the role of music (and by extension, dance) in the film is even larger than that. Music isn’t just an external element that only the audience can hear within the boundaries of filmmaking or a fictional narrative.

“It made sense to us because when I first met Joaquin and we first started talking about JOKER, I talked to him that Arthur was one of those people that has music in him. So music and dance became a theme in the film. And this is the second time we see him dancing, and it’s a little bit of Joker coming out, a little bit more than the scene before and a little bit less than the next time we see him dance.” ‒ Todd Phillips (October 7, 2019 ‒ The New York Times ‒ Watch Joaquin Phoenix Do a Creepy Dance in JOKER | Anatomy of a Scene video on Youtube)

Music is a leitmotiv in Arthur’s life. For a character who is so introverted, suppressed and in deep psychological pain, music and dancing are a means of outward expression. Throughout the story, his dancing indicates either deep sorrow or a feeling of extreme happiness. Two sides at the opposite ends of the spectrum of human emotion. Music is cathartic for him. What is catharsis? Originally, it is a metaphorical concept used by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in Poetics to describe the effects of tragedy on the spectator. The word was derived from the medical term katharsis (“purgation” or “purification” in Greek). Aristotle stated that the purpose of tragedy (in the sense of drama, theatrical genre) is to arouse “terror and pity” in the spectator and thus to allow the release of these strong emotions. Nowadays, it is loosely defined as the purgation of the emotions or a release from tension primarily through art. There are a dozen scenes, micro-moments where Arthur dances in the film and the majority of them are private moments. The only exceptions are scenes where Fleck appears as Carnival (name his uses for his gigs as a clown) or Joker, at the very end of the film.

As a clown, entertainer-for-hire, music and dancing (as demonstrated by the scene where he dances in front of Kenny’s Music Shop to Temptation Rag or the If You’re Happy and You Know scene at the children’s ward) are part of his work and the mask he puts on. Just like his humour and attempts to pursue a stand-up comedy career, it’s a way of presenting himself to the world and at times, it almost appears as a way to cope with pain (mental or physical). In those moments, he has an audience, albeit a limited one. He wants to be heard and seen. That yearning for recognition is a prominent theme in the story. In his private life though, raw emotions are channelled through dancing, like a wordless monologue. He exclusively dances for himself and alone. Music is something he instantly connects with. Even in that brief scene where he gently dances with Penny to the instrumental version of That’s Life at the end of the Murray Franklin show theme after having “a date”, he does so because he wants her to dance with him and to share his joy. He responds to cheerful music in those fleeting moments of positivity. Another example is the earlier scene where Arthur dances with the gun to Slap That Bass performed by Fred Astaire as a segment from the musical Shall We Dance plays on TV. He weighs the revolver Randall gave him, points at the room, gets up, starts dancing and pretending he is being complimented on his skills by someone. Until the subway murders, there is an adequation between the situations he is in and what his short dances indicate, from an emotional standpoint. 


His breath was hitching. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Faster. Inhale. Exhale. Faster, faster, faster. His mind was clouded, he felt dizzy. Arthur’s blood was singing. And then the music came to him.

(Photo credit: DC Comics/DC Entertainment/Warner Bros. Pictures)

The Bathroom Dance is a pivotal moment and perhaps the best illustration of that cathartic effect music has on Arthur. It follows a sequence that isn’t just especially intense for the audience but for the character too. He crossed a certain line which definitively stirs him in the direction to become the Joker. It’s a jarring but beautiful sequence. Let’s rewind and dissect it. He shoots the three Wayne Investments businessmen. As the remaining one cries for help and looks for an exit, Arthur gets ups and the subway brakes at the next station. The subway stops. Arthur’s breath becomes erratic and he points a gun at his temple, considering suicide for a split-second. He grabs his bag and gets out, follows the remaining businessman and kills him. Arthur’s ears are ringing, he looks around him with an air of confusion and runs away. He finds the dirty public bathroom, locks the door behind him and leans on it, probably nauseous and barely able to stand on this feet. His breath is hitching. And then the music comes to him. He starts that incredibly bizarre, tai-chi like, slow dance as the sound of the lone cello accompanies him.

It’s strangely elegant. Arthur’s emotions move through his body and out of it. He turns his distress and overwhelming emotion into motion. He quite literally puts it out, it’s a way for him to release tension. That numbing sense of sadness gives way to music. As he goes back to his building and walks down the corridor to Sophie Dumond’s apartment, the orchestra catches up with the cello and the music thumps to his steps, like a loud beating heart. Joker is starting to emerge. This scene marks a 180° turn in Arthur’s metamorphosis. From there, Arthur gets bolder, more confident and angrier too – and less passive. The numerous dance scenes that will follow show that shift, both musically and in movements. When he leaves “Ha-Has” (the agency located at Amusement Mile that employs him) on the next day because his boss fired him, he adopts an almost carefree attitude tainted with sarcasm and dances down the stairs while My Name is Carnival plays in the background. After that, he doesn’t dance until he visually becomes the Joker. Then comes the scene where Arthur dyes his hair green while Frank Sinatra’s That’s Life plays for the second ‒ but not the last ‒ time.

The Bathroom Dance is a near antithesis of the other dance that has become the hallmark of Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the Joker: the Stair Dance. Arthur Fleck, now sporting green slicked-back hair, wearing a finer version of his clown make-up with a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth and dressed in a bright three-piece suit, appears at the top of the steep outdoor staircase he climbs every day. He dances to Rock and Glitter Part II with broad, slightly disjointed movements, flailing arms and legs. But it has a certain flair and conveys the character’s total liberation. Arthur’s body language was marked by tension and restraint to the point where Phoenix thought it physically uncomfortable to play the character while Joker is the polar opposite. He has that devil-may-care attitude, his gait is smooth, he is almost aerial in the way he moves. When Joker is dancing, he externalises happiness in situations that for the audience are oppressing, horrid or emotionally charged. Joker dances at the train station when the policemen who were chasing him get beat by a fervent crowd of protesters. He dances backstage at the Murray Franklin’s Show (same music as during the Bathroom Dance), he dances and makes pirouettes when he is brought out on stage. After shooting Franklin live on TV, he does a little dance and walks to the camera.

“I think what influenced me the most was Ray Bolger…There was a particular song called ‘The Old Soft Shoe’ that he performed and I saw a video of it and there’s this odd arrogance almost to his movements and, really, I completely just stole it from him. He does this thing of turning his chin up. This choreographer Michael Arnold showed me that and tons of videos and I zeroed in on that one. That was Joker, right? There’s an arrogance to him, really. That was probably the greatest influence. But also disco.” ‒ Joaquin Phoenix (October 6, 2019 ‒ Gulf News)

And then, of course, there is the bone-chilling denouement. It’s a heartbreaking sequence where Arthur wholly embraces Joker. When the GCPD car gets hit by another vehicle, Hildur Guðnadóttir’s final piece Call Me Joker starts playing. As Joker slowly rises from unconsciousness and takes stock of what is happening, cheered by the crowd, the haunting score takes a softer, uplifting turn. He looks around. Bloody, probably injured and his hair dishevelled, he dances in a jerky, broken manner. The world whirls with him, following his rhythm. When he realises that blood is dripping from his mouth, the percussion section of the orchestra intervenes, urging him on. He puts his fingers at the corner of his mouth and smears a bloody smile while his eyes are filled with tears. The cello is overpowered by the orchestra: Arthur dies and Joker is born.

The last dance occurs immediately after, in what serves as an epilogue. A greying and stubbled Arthur, presumably a few years after the main events of the film, is seen in a white room (the song White Room by Cream played as the GCPD car drove through the agitated and afire streets) in Arkham State Hospital. He’s sitting across his therapist, taking on his cigarette between two controlled laughs. She asks him why he’s laughing, he answers he was thinking of a joke and that she wouldn’t get it. He then starts to hum the lyrics of That’s Life and is shown walking down the corridor, leaving dark red footsteps behind him. He dances, very much with the same ease and strange grace he had during the Stair Dance.

Music is an integral part of Arthur a person, so till the very end, it is embedded in the character. During most of the scenes where he dances ‒ if not all ‒ the character doesn’t talk. Music speaks for him whether it’s through the score, the combination of score and dance or song and dance. Music reveals the facets of the character. It assumes the role of a narrative device. When the Joker persona takes command, dancing expresses a peculiar, ill-placed joy that is widely associated with such a volatile and unpredictable character. In a way, Joker is a mirror to Carnival and the man beneath. But the image that it reflects is an antonym. Where Arthur hid behind Carnival and spent his entire life repressing emotions and abuse, Joker shows what he believes is his true self. He bites back. He feels free. From his perspective, it’s not a defeat but an evolution.