joker review

In less than a week, Joker has amassed a fortune despite a decidedly mixed critical reception. The film took the top prize at Venice, but a large number of critics (primarily American) have excoriated the film as being inappropriate if not downright dangerous, with many other commentators spilling buckets of ink on the topic before they even screened the film.

Given the film’s obvious debts to the works of Scorsese (The King of Comedy above all, with a dash of everything from Goodfellas to Bringing Out The Dead thrown in for good measure), it’s no surprise that the film is littered with needle drops that include show tunes, cabaret numbers, stadium hits, and excerpts from film scores. The evocative musical themes by composer Hildur Guðnadóttir are particularly effective in setting the mood, but there are dozens of other musical pieces used to tell the tale of Arthur Fleck.

Here are the tracks from Joker’s soundtrack, as well as some background on how these songs gained fame, how they work in the film and some surprising connections outside the narrative that shape how we hear these pieces in the context of Todd Phillips’ film.

Temptation Rag – Written by Henry Lodge, Performed by Claude Bolling

Originally released in 1909, Henry Lodge’s jaunty piano number was a big hit, playing for years on the vaudeville circuit and leading to several other major compositions of the era. French Jazz pianist Claude Bolling had a major career as a jazz prodigy, gigging with major icons like Lionel Hampton and Kenny Clark when he was in his teens. In 1966, Bolling covered Lodge’s tune on Decca Records.

Rooftop – Written and Performed by Hildur Guðnadóttir and Jóhann Jóhannsson

This cue was written by Joker’s composer Guðnadóttir along with the late Jóhann Jóhannsson for the Mary Magdalene soundtrack. It was one of two scores released posthumously after Jóhannsson’s accidental overdose, and the quiet, haunting string line is evocative of many of his celebrated scores from films like Arrival, Sicario, Mother! and more. Fellow Icelander Guðnadóttir’s score is one of Joker’s greatest tricks, and her cello and choral work remains particularly evocative. 

Here Comes The King – Written by Steve Karmen

This circus-like theme was a jingle written in 1971 to promote Budweiser (“The King of Beers”), and was the basis for numerous period commercials that had the ubiquitous Clydesdale horses that remain representative of the brand to this day.

Murray’s Theme – Written by Judson Crane and Mark Hollingsworth

An official version of it doesn’t seem to be online yet, but the jazzy theme for the late night show that the Flecks enjoy at night was composed by Crane, a composer and session musician, and Mark Hollingsworth, who had hundreds of credits for writing themes for films, shows, and even alert noises for Apple phones. 

Everybody Plays The Fool – Written by Ralph Bailey, Rudy Clark and Kenneth Williams, Performed by The Main Ingredient

A Grammy-nominated slice of pop soul, The Main Ingredient’s best known track has appeared in shows like Supernatural and Everybody Hates Chris. One of the members of The Main Ingredient was Cuba Gooding Sr., whose son would go on to win an Oscar for yelling about showing him the money.

If You’re Happy And You Know It – Written by Joe Raposo, Performed by Chaim Tenenbaum

There’s big debate about the origins of this song, with some suggesting it was inspired by a track in the 1938 Soviet film Volga-Volga, but in 1971, the copyright was granted to Joe Raposo, who is best known as the earworm genius behind numerous classic tunes written for Sesame Street, including the (incredible) theme song and “C is for Cookie,” as well as the memorable song that opens Three’s Company. Chaim Tenenbaum’s career is also pretty extraordinary, backing the McGarrigle sisters for year as well as their kids Rufus and Martha Wainwright while holding down a day job teaching philosophy in Montreal.

Smile – Written by Charles Chaplin, John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons, Performed by Jimmy Durante

One of several songs written by the legendary Charlie Chaplin, this was the main melodic theme from the 1936 film Modern Times, a work that plays a part in Joker’s narrative. In 1965, the gravel voiced, clown-nosed Jimmy Durante recorded the track along without standards, indicative of the kind of sweeping, lounge-y tunes he’d perform at his Vegas gigs. The sweeping arrangement was by longtime Durante collaborator Roy Bargy.  

Love Theme Cue from Modern Times – Written by Charles Chaplin, Performed by North German Radio Symphony Orchestra, Conducted by Timothy Brock

Throughout Joker there are musical references to Chapin’s classic, and the “Love Theme” from Modern Times that served as the basis for “Smile” is credited as well. 

Slap That Bass (from Shall We Dance) – Written by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin, Performed by Fred Astaire and the RKO Studio Chorus & Orchestra

This rhythmic segment from the 1937 Astaire/Rogers musical Shall We Dance features compositions by the peerless George and Ira Gershwin. The onscreen RKO Studio Orchestra consisted of clarinetist, saxophonist, and bandleader Jimmy Dorsey with members of his own band, making this an all-star ensemble in the prime era of swing. 

My Name Is Carnival – Written and Performed by Jackson C. Frank

Jackson C. Frank was a largely unknown folk musician who suffered greatly with mental health issues that plagued him for decades. In 1965, he released a self-titled album that was produced by Paul Simon and released on Columbia. It would go on to influence a generation of musicians who heard his work, with the likes of Nick Drake, Bert Jansch, Simon & Garfunkel and Sandy Denny covering his songs. The second track on the second side is “My Name is Carnival,” evoking Fleck’s clown name before he changes it to Joker.  

That’s Life – Written by Dean Kay and Kelly Gordon, Performed by Frank Sinatra

Kay and Gordon’s song about pragmatic optimism was first recorded by Marion Montgomery in 1964 and failed to get much attention. The story goes that Frank Sinatra heard a cover of it on the radio and recorded it for a TV special, with arranger Nelson Riddle adding the usual pomp of his big band sound. In Joker, the bemused fatalism of the song is used as a sign off by Murray Franklin, with an instrumental version playing as his closing credits music.

Rock ‘N’ Roll (Part 2) – Written by Gary Glitter and Mike Leander

Metatextually, this is the song from Joker that got the most attention online, and for justifiable reasons. The song was a massive hit for Gary Glitter, who was a massively popular artist during the mid-1970s glam period. Released in the spring of 1972, the two-sided single includes the first half extolling the virtues of glam rock, while the second side, dubbed Part 2, is essentially a repetitive rhythmic jam. Mike Leander, the co-writer, had an impressive career as an arranger, working with everyone from The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to Shirley Bassey and Van Morrison. The song has been played for decades at sporting events, with a chant-like vibe that matches the likes of Queen’s “Will Will Rock You.” Yet underneath this infectious beat is some truly dark stuff, echoed by the dance Joker performs following one of his moments of sadism. Glitter’s disgrace began with a conviction in the UK for possession of child pornography, and after that, he was busted for other offenses he committed in the ’70s and ’80s: he ended up being jailed for a total of 16 years starting in 2015 for attempted rape, four counts of indecent assault, and one count of having sex with a girl under the age of 13.

Spanish Flea – Written by Julius Wechter, Performed by Ray Davies and His Button Down Brass

A truly silly tune that’s often used as waiting music in elevators, the song was written by Julius Wechter in the 1960s as a song with lyrics but gained prominence when Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass took their instrumental version to number one on the charts. In Joker, the version is by Ray Davies (not to be confused with the member of the Kinks), a Welsh-born trumpeter and band leader that does a convincing cover. The song was also the theme to “The Dating Game,” which increased its popularity even further. 

White Room – Written by Jack Bruce and Pete Brown, Performed by Cream

With music by bassist Jack Bruce and lyrics by longtime collaborator Pete Brown, this massive hit for Cream is a staple of classic rock, exemplifying the power trio psych sound of this first supergroup. With Eric Clapton on wah guitar and the tempestuous (and recently departed) Ginger Baker on drums, the song was a cornerstone of their “Wheels of Fire” album and remains a popular single to this day.

Send In the Clowns – Written by Stephen Sondheim, Performed by Frank Sinatra

Originally written by Stephen Sondheim for his musical A Little Night Music, which is based on an Ingmar Bergman film, this somber track was originated on stage by Glynis Johns on Broadway and (future Dame) Judy Dench in London, yet didn’t become known outside of theatre circles until folk icon Judy Collins covered it. In turn, Frank Sinatra once again picked up the mantle of a cover and ran with it. Sondheim has often railed that the meaning of the song has remained opaque – it’s not a rallying cry for clowns but about regret, the theatrical need to inject some levity into a serious situation only to find that the singers themselves are already foolish. It wasn’t until 1985 that the Barbara Streisand version came out, making it all the more anachronistic that three Wall Street bros would know the deeper lyrics of this track in the context of this film. Regardless, for a song whose subtlety of meaning is lost on many fans and naysayers alike, this may well be the perfect track to sum up the film Joker and its mixed reception.

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