Todd Phillips’ Joker was released to stupefying acclaim in 2019, becoming one of the highest-grossing R-rated films of all time and getting nominated for multiple Academy Awards. The most heavily praised elements of the film were Lawrence Sher’s cinematography, Hildur Guðnadóttir’s invasively unsettling musical score and Joaquin Phoenix’s fully committed performance as the titular character. However, one of the most heavily criticized elements of the film was Phillips’ script, which was essentially a pastiche of various Martin Scorsese films.
Joker took very liberally from Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, combining the core narrative of the former with the central character arc and grisly climax of the latter. But reports now claim that Lady Gaga is deep into discussions of coming onboard Joker: Folie Deux, which will be a musical. So, is Phillips looking to take inspiration from Scorsese’s sole musical, New York, New York,
Joker and Travis Bickle: A Madness Shared by Two
Made in the immediate aftermath of Taxi Driver‘s ragging success in 1976, New York, New York was Scorsese’s big mainstream swing when it got released in 1977. With a budget of $14 million, far and away the largest price tag of any Scorsese film up to that point, the film saw Scorsese going all-in on delivering a true classical Hollywood musical . Utilizing the budget to create a hyper-stylized version of 1945 that was distinctly more reminiscent of MGM and Warner Brothers’ classic musicals than it was of the actual time period itself, Scorsese embraced the superficiality of the filmmaking to phenomenal results.
The film is a mix of this of artifice and authenticity, with Scorsese’s work with lead actors Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro retaining his signature raw emotionality. Scorsese deliberately juxtaposes this ugly reality with the beauty and subjectivity of the production design and visual flourishes. In addition, this approach to character bleeds over into the way the film defines itself as a musical.
New York, New York is a diegetic musical. That is to say that, as opposed to classically non-diegetic examples such as The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain or West Side Storycharacters only sing and dance in New York, New York as literal performances in the narrative. Minnelli’s Francine Evans and De Niro’s Jimmy Doyle are a vocalist and saxophonist, respectively, who get hired as professional entertainers. That is where all the musical numbers of the film stem from. This stylistic choice on Scorsese’s part also directly hearkens back to the earliest classical musicals he is drawing from. All the first musical films made in the ’30s, such as 42nd Street and Footlight Paradewere backstage musicals centered around Broadway productions and only featured song-and-dance set pieces as in-narrative performances by the Broadway troupe.
A more recent example of a diegetic musical would be none other than Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Bornwhich has more than a few ties of its own to Phillips’ Joker, Potential Lady Gaga casting aside, Phillips has a producing credit on A Star is Born, and Cooper has a producing credit on Jokerwith Phillips praising Cooper as being a “huge help” in the finalizing of Joker‘s edit. Perhaps not so coincidentally, New York, New York‘s tale of doomed love amidst the ambitious drives of two creative artists was heavily inspired by William A. Wellman’s original 1937 A Star is Born,
Joker’s Trading in His Joke Book for… Dancing Shoes?
If reports are accurate, Joker: Folie Deux will likely be a diegetic musical. Considering the talent involved (Phillips is a literal visual storyteller) and the story previously established, if the Joker sequel does feature musical numbers, they will be addressed by the narrative itself. And just as Phillips looked to The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver to provide a structural foundation for the first film’s story, New York, New York looks to be dictating the structure and content of the second film.
That is where the potential casting of Lady Gaga becomes crucially indicative of Phillips’ intentions. New York, New York starred Liza Minnelli, an absurdly gifted actress and vocalist who could hold her own playing against Scorsese’s most reliable leading man, De Niro. Phillips already found his De Niro analog in the form of Phoenix, and if he was looking to cast a modern-day analog for Liza Minnelli, it doesn’t get much more on the nose than casting Gaga, who both resembles Minnelli and shares her wide range of talents. Casting Lady Gaga as Harley Quinn, a character who the titular Joker has an infamously troubled relationship with, and titling the sequel Folie Deux (a French expression meaning “a madness shared by two”) only further cements New York, New York‘s influence on the film.
New York, New York chronicles the troubled relationship between Jimmy and Francine over several years as they experience various professional highs and lows of performing. Scorsese juxtaposes the violent lows of their personal lives with the delirious highs of their professional lives and vice versa, in much the same way he formally juxtaposes artifice and authenticity. Phillips’ titular “madness shared by two” may refer to Joker and Harley, and their joint arc could easily follow the trajectory of Jimmy and Francine’s volatile troubles.
It’s also important to note that making the Joker sequel a musical in the spirit of New York, New York isnt as absurd as it may initially seem. Phoenix has talked about finding the soul of his character during the production of the original Joker through dance, something that was not present in Phillips’ script. As filming progressed, Phillips and Phoenix came to refer to the character as a man with “music in him,” which repeatedly got expressed throughout the film through off-kilter dance sequences. One of the most infamous scenes in the entire film is simply of Phoenix’s Joker dancing down a staircase. This sense of musicality, which grew increasingly pronounced over the course of making Jokerundoubtedly played a huge role in the shaping of the sequel.
Combine this increased awareness of the musicality in Phoenix’s performance with the fact that Joker ends with his character in an asylum, and a sequel that outright embraces the musicality and stars Lady Gaga as Harley Quinn sounds downright logical. In crafting a follow-up to his own ripoff of Taxi DriverPhillips looks to be stealing pages directly from Scorsese’s own follow-up to Taxi Driver: a go-for-broke musical blockbuster that boldly pushes against the boundaries of the form. Here’s hoping Joker: Folie Deux can be half as bold and inventive as New York, New York,