The Joker score is straight out of a Batman movie. That may be an obvious option for a DC villain standalone movie; however, Todd Phillips, the writer-director of the movie, made one thing clear in the lead up to release: he did not set out to make a comic book movie.
But by the end, Joker takes a hard left into Batman territory, as if pushed there by the booming orchestra of Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir. The choice speaks to the conundrum faced by Todd Phillips’ referential drama, and future imitators that hope to have their massive win at the box office: what a prestige comic book movie sounds like?
Until the climax, the score of Joker leans on drawn-out strings in order to build a sense of dread. Although a few lilts up and down provide the barest thread of a melody, the music comes across as a drone. Because the unfolding events reach a critical mass, these almost formless sounds give way to a rhythmic echo and beat that bears a striking resemblance to the theme for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy that also tried to bill itself as anything but a comic book movie.
James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer concocted the first sounds for the caped crusader of Nolan in 2005’s Batman Begins, departing from the motifs and themes that defined the work of Danny Elfman in the 1989 Batman with a more operatic sound. They reinvented the sound of the Joker three years later with Zimmer composing a theme that was built around just two notes which defied any sense of melody for over a full minute.
The callback is all the stranger given that there are movies which Joker is trying to emulate that seem to have been ignored when it comes to musical influence. The jazzy score to Taxi Driver of Herrmann is nowhere to be heard, as is the sparseness of the music in The King of Comedy. The music plays almost like a parody of Zimmer’s work, aping his most famous scores by peeling out the loud, sustained noises and simple themes.
Trying to shy away from more obviously melodic themes, Joker reminds the viewers of its origins in comics as well as the history of Batman on screen. When Batman is inserted hamfistedly into Arthur Fleck’s story, it is no surprise – the soundtrack has been signaled the inevitable from the very first note.