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There are many reasons why Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is different than any previous interpretation of the legendary DC Comics villain, but one aspect is the way in which he moves – or, more specifically, the way he dances. Obviously this isn’t the first big screen version of the character to show off some steps, as Jack Nicholson’s take from 1989 was memorably a big Prince fan, but what we see in director Todd Phillips’ new movie is very different than what has been portrayed before.
Without getting too deep into details pre-release, Joker a.k.a. Arthur Fleck is a guy who dances as a method of outward expression of his thoughts and feelings, which is significant given that he bottles so much of himself up when out in regular society. When he has the chance to really be himself, which is something that usually happens in his solitude, his energy comes out in the form of deliberate steps and flowing arms. It’s a fantastic mix of elegance and creepy, and Todd Phillips recently explained how it came to be a part of the character:
One of the earliest things [Joaquin Phoenix and I] spoke about was that Arthur had music in him. Like it just existed in him. Some people that you might know personally have that feeling, and I always thought that about Arthur; but it was sort of kept in and trapped, and there was something about that evolving.
Last month, Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix reunited for a special post-screening Q&A session following an early screening of Joker in Los Angeles, and one of the first subjects that was covered in the conversation was the way in which the titular character expresses himself through dance. It’s an element of Arthur Fleck that develops slowly over the course of the story in the film, and it became a part of who he is because of talks that the filmmaker and the actor had about the performance in the lead up to production.
That being said, not all of the boogying featured in Joker was actually a part of the script – and there is legitimately a lot of it over the course of the film. According to Phillips, there were some sequences where it was definitely in his pre-arranged plans, such as the in-costume moves the eponymous villain performs on the stairs captured in the image at the top of this article, but initially the idea was to keep the dancing limited to just a pair of scenes (the other being a bit of sign-spinning that is performed in the first act). But that changed as filming continued. Said the director,
The only dancing in the script was the dancing, obviously, as a clown in the beginning, which isn't really much of a dance; it's a performance. But the dancing on the stairs was there. Other than that, we didn't do it, but when we start talking about Arthur, we started talking about music and having music in him and that kind of thing.
Without getting into too many details pre-release, it’s really when Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck starts to tune into his internal music that he starts to travel down the road transforming into one of the most iconic villains in pop culture history. There is one particular incident that happens to set him down this path, and while dancing wasn’t featured in the script, Phoenix apparently doing a bit of improv on set led to the character’s physicality being defined in a very special way. Said Phillips:
The scene in the bathroom where he just starts dancing, that's not in the script; that's not in the thing. That's just something that kind of evolved like 'Oh, this is a moment where we can show that it's kind of fighting to get out.' But I love the dancing in the movie. I think we should have more of it.
From that point forward, you’ll notice watching the movie that Arthur primarily dances whenever he is feeling most comfortable in his own skin. At first this is mostly a private thing, as he moves his hips in the living room or swings around his long hair in the mirror, but it’s when this part of his persona becomes more public that things get really, really scary.
The trailers we’ve seen from Joker thus far have actually offered a nice taste of what to expect in this arena – but it’s really something that needs to be seen within the full film to grasp its full weight. Fortunately, audiences everywhere won’t have to wait too much longer to do just that. The film, which co-stars Frances Conroy, Zazie Beetz, Brett Cullen, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, Brian Tyree Henry, Marc Maron, and Robert De Niro, will be in theaters everywhere on October 4th.