Hildur Guðnadóttir: Bathroom Dance


In 2018, Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir was announced as the composer for the 2019 thriller, The Joker. Alongside Director Todd Phillips, Guðnadóttir composed a lot of the music based on her reactions to filmed scenes and script ideas. Guðnadóttir was allowed to flex her creative mind for a lot of the score for The Joker, which led her to write largely traditional symphonic score. Many scenes in the film just feature strings, however. After reading the script for the first time, Guðnadóttir composed a requiem for Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker:


“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.”


The main theme is then used a number of times throughout the score, each time showing the progression of the character of Arthur. Guðnadóttir makes a point in her score to not show character development through complicated music or chordal progressions, but instead through simple melodies with enhanced orchestrations. 


The Music

Bathroom Dance accompanies a scene just after Arthur has murdered three Wall Street businessmen who taunted him on the subway. Arthur enters a grotty bathroom, which is where Guðnadóttir’s score begins again. Instead of using a normal cello, Guðnadóttir writes for a halldorophone – an electric cello:


“It’s a feedback instrument. A lot of electronic sounds that you hear in the score, it’s all performed live, and it’s all coming from that instrument and the connection with the amplifiers. The very beginning piece, you almost only hear the cello. As we get further into the movie, the orchestra gets louder and louder, and then it kind of suffocates the cello. It’s almost like the empathy we have for his character is led by the cello, and then his darker side, his inner turmoil, is the orchestra, which is almost inaudible, and then just slowly takes over as we get further in.”


As the score begins to unfold, Arthur begins performing a slow dance in the bathroom. Many different readings of this scene have been put out to the world, with the most popular perhaps being that this scene shows Arthur’s transition into the Joker. A sort of cleansing, ritualistic dance accompanied by Guðnadóttir’s creepy score creates one of the most iconic scenes of the whole film. 

The halldorophone sits on top of the rest of the orchestra and leads the repetitive melody. Guðnadóttir plays with dynamics too which creates really intriguing textures and timbres between the electric cello and the orchestra. As the music develops through the eerie opening solo from the halldorophone, the feedback created leads to a moment of uncomfortable dissonance. Ending with the Joker looking at himself in the grubby mirror and flickering light, the ritual is over, and his tirade continues.


Ⓒ Alex Burns 2020

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