Composer Jefferson Friedman discusses the music of DC’s animated series Harley Quinn.
Since the release of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad in 2016, the former psychiatrist turned maniac Harley Quinn has become a beloved character both in and beyond the DC Universe. First introduced as the Joker’s girlfriend in The Batman: Animated Series in 1992. She appeared in the comics a year later. Now, she’s become a star all on her own, headlining both a film, Birds of Prey, and a series at the same time.
Streaming on DC Universe, Harley Quinn follows a newly single Harley (Kaley Cuoco) after she breaks up with the Joker (Alan Tudyk) and becomes her own supervillain in Gotham City. The series premiered on November 29, 2019, to rave reviews from critics and is composed by Jefferson Friedman.
Hidden Remote: How did you become a part of Harley Quinn?
Jefferson Friedman: I had previously worked with Pat and Justin on Powerless, and we really got along creatively, so it was an easy choice to do Harley when they asked. When they described the show to me, I was all in, and when they sent me the first animatic, it was exactly what I hoped it would be.
HR: I’m a huge fan of your work from the “On the Love” album and the Chiara String Quartets. Will we get to hear something similar in Harley Quinn as the series progresses? That electrifying apprehension? So far, it’s kept a relatively playful tune.
JF: Well thanks! The last third of the first season gets quite dark and serious (but also still hilarious!), so I had the opportunity to channel the composer I am when I write my own songs and pieces. The surface details between the two are different because it still needs to sound like the show, but the energy is very similar.
HR: Did your background in classical orchestra prepare you for writing musical scores for film and television?
JF: Absolutely. Especially for a score like Harley, a part of which is big orchestra superhero/supervillain music. Being fluent in how to orchestrate is important, and also a huge timesaver.
HR: As I’ve said, the score matches Harley perfectly. It’s essentially an extension of her personality. How did you find the right sound for her?
JF: Musical thematic design is very similar to set design or costume design. As a set designer, how do you make something look like Gotham? As a composer, how do you make something sound like Gotham? As a costume designer, how do you clarify and intensify for the audience who the person is that you’re dressing? The same goes for composing.
In Harley’s case, I took inspiration from her two iconic looks – the harlequin outfit and the punkier Suicide Squad look. So her theme ended up being a cross between carnival music and punk.
HR: The first official trailer for the series featured Joan Jett’s cover of the Mary Tyler Moore theme song. Did any further inspiration come from the 1970’s sitcom?
JF: Not only for the first trailer, but they used it as a placeholder for the final fight sequence in Episode 1 before I had written her theme! And without knowing that, I had previously put together a playlist of badass female musicians, and Joan Jett (and that song) was the first thing I put on it. So the producers and I were on the same page even before we had talked about what the music should sound like.
HR: When creating the musical tone for Harley, did you explore the character’s previous adaptations from Suicide Squad, Arkham games, the 2002 Birds of Prey series or the animated Batman series?
JF: I have no idea how many hours I logged playing the Arkham games. Arkham City is one of the few games I’ve 100%-ed, both in-game and Xbox achievements. So yeah, I know those scores pretty well. My memory of Batman: The Animated Series is always in the back of my head when I’m writing Harley.
HR: I noticed that a type of carnivalesque music played in the background while Joker and Harley were together during the first episode. This vanished when they broke up. Carnival music is occasionally used in entertainment to create a sense of unease, was this your intention?
JF: See above. And the carnival palette still remains as part of both of their sounds. The more important thing about Episode 1, however, is that there’s no guitar, bass, or drums at all until Harley is walking to confront the Joker after she’s been “reborn” with her newfound confidence.
HR: There is an obvious contrast between Harley’s two core relationships. The softer music that plays when Ivy appears is a sharp divergence to whatever tension accompanies the Joker’s presence. Is this a hint that the two friends will share an inexplicit romance as in the comics?
JF: That is above my paygrade to talk about. But I call that theme the #Harvey love theme because they do love each other. Time will tell whether it becomes more than platonic.
HR: I understand that you’re a big DC fan, so outside of Harley, what other characters did you enjoy composing for? Also, who is your favorite DC character overall?
JF: The Riddler is always fun to write for because he’s so arch. And Gordon and Aquaman are super fun as well. As to the second question, if I say anything other than Harley, I might get fired.
HR: This specific question is more for me than anyone else. He’s a horrible guy yet I’ve always loved the Joker, he’s my favorite comic character, so I just really want to hear how you created his theme.
JF: Joker is the Big Bad in this show, so making his theme as dark as possible was important. The off-kilter carny part of his sound should be pretty clear, but the bassline to his theme is a variation of the Dies Irae (or “Day of Wrath”) melody that composers have been using for centuries to conjure up the devil.
HR: What was the most challenging part of working on Harley Quinn and what was the greatest part?
JF: They’re both the same actually. When you work on a show that you love as much as I love Harley, you become emotionally invested in what you’re writing, which requires all of your creative energy, but is the most rewarding kind of work.
HR: And final question, are there any upcoming projects that you can discuss?
JF: I’m continuing to work on both Harley and New Amsterdam, so that’s keeping me busy through the spring!
I went and listened to “Dies Irae” after finishing this interview and I strongly advise everyone else to do the same. It’s incredible!
The first season of Harley Quinn consists of 13 episodes and the first six episodes have already aired. Episode 7 is scheduled to be released on January 10.