Joker has set international box office records with the dark and twisted origin story of one of DC’s most beloved villains. Joaquin Phoenix’s superb portrayal of the mentally ill party clown and failed stand-up comedian in a bleak, early 1980s, New York City is raw and disturbing. Audiences learn of his rough childhood, his at times challenging relationship with his mother, his general sense of loneliness and ongoing struggle to fit in with a society he views as broken. The film is hard to watch in places and many people have left theatres mid-movie claiming it is simply too much. Even for the most seasoned viewer, it’s an emotionally draining rollercoaster ride.
But – it’s also a huge hit.
A hit not just because of Joaquin’s transformative, Oscar-worthy performance. And not just because the brilliant script and flawless direction and the work of the co-stars and haunting musical score make it a masterpiece. It’s a hit because of its raw honesty, because of its relatability; and because beautifully told backstories add depth to personalities. Watching their development builds audience investment and drives a deeper love of the character.
When done well, backstories peel back the curtain on the sum of the moments that led to the now. They are intimate and drive an emotional narrative that adds greater levity to the shaping of today’s opinions or reactions.
Great radio shows do this too. In the balancing act of context vs content, the marriage to the moment must always win out; but the sharing of the rich tapestry of the players lives in bite-sized pieces can pave the longevity of a show and shape audience feelings. Stars can quickly transcend, becoming vulnerable and human – in all of the best ways – when sharing their past with their listeners. Backstory is the pathway to a richer connection. It shouldn’t be overused for fear of self-indulgence but when done sparingly and done well, it is very powerful.
You become so much more than just a Joker when you wipe off your makeup and show the audience who you are and where you came from.