There’s an area of the internet that believes that Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy is somehow a better film than Todd Phillips’ Joker. While it’s clear that without Scorsese’s film, Phillips’ film wouldn’t exit – it’s a key influence on Joker alongside Scorsese’s earlier classic, Taxi Driver – it’s also clear that Joker managed to take those key elements of The King Of Comedy and do something far more interesting with them. How much of this existed while Scorsese was initially attached to Joker as producer, before departing to announce that comic book films were the equivalent of theme park rides, is unclear, but one has to wonder if he was simply uncomfortable with referencing his own work so blatantly.
You have to wonder what the point of The King Of Comedy is; what Scorsese is trying to achieve. After the success of Taxi Driver for Columbia Pictures in 1976, the director made a couple of lukewarm films for United Artists: New York, New York in 1977 and Raging Bull in 1980. While the latter has proven to be one of his strongest films, it wasn’t initially received as such, and only took $23 million against an $18 million budget.
Switching to 20th Century Fox for The King Of Comedy, it almost seems that Scorsese is trying to not only derail his own career but destroy his reputation with each of the major film studios. His cocaine addiction probably deserves some of the blame here. It wouldn’t be his first strange choice for a project, and it wouldn’t be his last.
Where De Niro’s character in Taxi Driver was to some extent an anti-hero, his Rupert Pupkin in The King Of Comedy is even more unlikable than Raging Bull’s Jake La Motta. He’s a wannabe stand-up comedian; more infatuated with the glare of the TV cameras than the audience he’s entertaining. It’s not widespread success he’s chasing, it’s merely the acceptance of Rita (Diahnne Abbott).
That was the one thing that stuck out like a sore thumb when I saw Joker in the cinema; that they had cast a black actress (Zazie Beetz) as Sophie, Arthur Fleck’s (Joaquin Phoenix) love-interest. It seemed a little too on the nose, a blatant casting choice (the fact that Beetz looks so similar to Abbott doesn’t help matters). But to his credit, Todd Phillips does something far more interesting with the nature of his film’s central relationship.
Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s camera-flash free-frame used for the opening credits (and over a great Ray Charles song) is particularly well done. The other great shot is the image of Jerry Lewis’ Jerry Langford catching Pupkin’s hijacked monologue on a bank of TV’s in a store window after he escapes from Sandra Bernhard’s obsessed stalker Masha. Cinematic gold.
Times Square looks wonderful, and it’s nice to spot Blade Runner up on the marquee of one of the movie theatres. It’s also great to spot three quarters of the Clash – Joe Strummer, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon – alongside Don Letts and their sometime manager Kosmo Vinyl, as extras in the scene where Masha confronts Pupkin. Topper Headon must have been busy.
Not only did the film heavily influence Joker, but the scenes of Pupkin rehearsing / fantasising in his bedroom and hollering at his constantly interrupting mother (played by Scorsese’s mother Catherine) clearly influenced a similar trope in TV’s The Big Bang Theory.
I don’t think the needle-drops work spectacularly well in the film, but the soundtrack on its own is fantastic. Scorsese’s first collaboration with the Band’s Robbie Robertson as a de facto music supervisor sets the tone of most of the director’s soundtracks for the next three decades (right up to last year’s The Irishman): lots of blues based ‘60s and ‘70s rock interspersed with the occasional pop song.
Robertson’s own Between Trains exists as his first original song since leaving the Band, and the soundtrack also includes the only appearance of David Sanborn’s The Finer Things. Alongside Scorsese soundtrack regulars Van Morisson, B.B. King and Ray Charles, the soundtrack also features younger artists like the Cars’ Ric Ocasek, Talking Heads and the Pretenders. It’s the Pretenders’ song, Back On The Chain Gang, that feels so out of place, being such an evergreen radio hit.
Hit: Back On The Chain Gang – The Pretenders
Hidden Gem: Between Trains – Robbie Robertson