On paper, it’s an absurdist theatrical challenge: humanize the Joker—the one DC universe villain who comes off as more of a force of nature, void of empathy, perhaps than any other. By the same token, Warner Brothers knows the opportunity inherent in forging a compelling cinematic backstory for one of the silver screen’s most mesmerizing super villains.
Viewing the trailer, it becomes immediately obvious that Joker’s spiritual lineage owes much more to Heath Ledger’s interpretation of Batman’s adversary—and Christopher Nolan’s more grounded take on Gotham—than the Tim Burton or David Ayer-directed takes on the franchise. For director Todd Philips, it’s quite a departure from his previous comedic oeuvre, which included films such as the Hangover trilogy. The Joker in this film is introduced as Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a failing stand-up comedian who experiences Gotham’s cruel and uncompromising underworld in the 1980s.
As many of the YouTube comments on the above-embedded video note, it took being thrown into acid to create Jack Nicholson’s Joker; here, Phoenix is thrown into the vitriol of society. In a way, it’s the polar opposite of 2017’s Justice League: rather than riding on the recognition of an assemblage of famous faces, Joker is counting on our curiosity for character study, with no clear promise of a classic superhero encounter in sight, to carry the film.
As engrossing as Phoenix is, however, what arguably brings this trailer over the top is its musical selection. For about half the trailer, we hear the Jimmy Durante rendition of “Smile”, a song that already had a history before Durante covered it. It originally appeared as an instrumental in United Artists film Modern Times; in composing this piece, Charlie Chaplin was said to be inspired by the melodic sensibility of the late 19th / early 20th century Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini, and Tosca in particular. Seeing as Modern Times was also about an underdog (“Little Tramp”) character struggling to survive in the modern world, applying it to the parallel narrative of Joker is particularly apt, in addition to the more obvious lyrical connections. The first version with lyrics charted by Nat King Cole in 1954; Judy Garland recorded a well-received cover since, and after Jimmy Durante, Michael Jackson recorded a more critically received rendition in 1995.
The song doesn’t appear in full bore until about the 0:45 mark; before that, various hints of a wordless choir and other small instrumental cues are interspersed here and there as the trailer focuses on the Arthur Fleck character.
There’s quite a bit of interaction between music, lyrics, and on-screen action as the song plays uninterrupted. At 0:53 we see Fleck struggling to smile as Durante sings “smile / even though it’s breaking”; the next moment, there is a disturbing amount of counterpoint between the visual of a man (whom we cannot hear) thrashing about in a stretcher and the sound of easy-going brass in the song.
At 1:03, it almost looks like the man on stage is singing the song, but it isn’t enough to be sure. The disturbing contrast of on-screen action and the laid back atmosphere of the song hits again and again—against Fleck’s disturbing laugh at 1:05 and his forced smile using his index fingers while in makeup at 1:12. At the 1:12 mark we hear an extra percussive hit in synch as his smile snaps back into place, which seems to signify Fleck’s psychological breaking point; after this synch point between sound and visual, we see him laughing manically on the subway, a markedly different person and much closer to the individual we know as The Joker than the beginning of the trailer illustrated.
Notably, even though there is extra sound to raise dramatic tension, and diegetic dialogue that almost drowns out the song, “Smile” does continue unabated. After a roll down the piano, at 1:24, the date card comes in with an epic, choral version of the song that is obviously inspired by the choir in the Jimmy Durante version—but also clearly not the same. There is a prominent theremin in the mix, in addition to strings.
This instrumental version of the song allows its first point of inspiration—Puccini—to shine through in a way that it really never had before. Notice also at this point there is a shot at 1:34 where we see an advertisement for none other than Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. One cannot help but wonder at this point whether the creative team doesn’t want us to more deeply consider the narrative and musical parallels between this story and Chaplin’s.
“I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realize it’s a comedy,” the Joker narrates across a montage of violent scenes. At 2:13 we see the Joker stomp in sync with the epic percussion on the penultimate chord, a defiant and joyous celebration of his identity.
We are invited to consider in this trailer, and through its music, how there may be a marked difference between tragedy and comedy, but sometimes only the thinnest of lines is drawn between them.
— Curtis Perry