For a full seismic minute in the movie “Joker,” a perverse moment of rebirth is accompanied by a stomping rock ‘n’ roll beat as Joaquin Phoenix dances down a concrete staircase, finally realized as the Clown Prince of Crime.
The song he’s strutting to is the mostly instrumental 1972 hit “Rock and Roll Part 2” by British glam-rock singer Gary Glitter, an artist with his own dark history.
For some viewers, it’s a disturbing choice of song from director Todd Phillips, as Glitter (born Paul Gadd) is currently serving a 16-year prison term for sexual crimes against minors. Critics in the media and on social media were quick to speak out.
The Daily Beast declared that the song’s inclusion “has shocked U.K. audiences,” while USA Today noted that Glitter “stands to receive royalties from the success of ‘Joker’ while he’s behind bars.”
“I will pass on paying to see #JokerMovie until they remove convicted pedophile Gary Glitter’s song or donate royalties from it to a child abuse charity,” posted @hooperstarium. And @sharonhollydav1 tweeted: “So when you buy a ticket remember who’s getting some of that.”
Neither Phillips, music supervisor Randall Poster nor the movie studio Warner Bros. responded to requests for comment on the song’s inclusion. Phillips, who directed the smash bro-comedy “The Hangover,” appears comfortable thumbing his noise at propriety: In 1993, he made a documentary on the late, self-mutilating punk-rock extremist GG Allin; and as “Joker” rolled out last week amid a storm of concern about the film’s perceived incitement to violence, Phillips lamented the difficulty of creating comedy amid the rise of “woke culture.”
Still, in an age when an artist’s repugnant or illegal past behavior is increasingly likely to attract rebuke, filmmakers and their music supervisors have to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of including songs by controversial or disgraced performers.
Mary Ramos, a musical collaborator with director Quentin Tarantino for 25 years, recently grappled with including a song written by Charles Manson in “Once Upon a Time ... In Hollywood.” When the filmmakers were assured that no one connected to Manson would receive royalties, they moved forward.
“There’s so much incredible music out there, it feels like a good idea to try to elevate other work rather than use a song with a tainted history,” says Ramos, who licensed Glitter’s song for the comedy “Happy Gilmore” in 1996, before his criminal troubles began. “But it really all comes down to character and story. Film music supervision is an art — songs are not chosen randomly.”
For “Joker,” much of the criticism is centered on assumptions that Glitter was personally profiting from its use in the film, but Glitter sold away all his rights to the recording and publishing of “Rock and Roll Part 2,” co-written by the late Mike Leander, as well as his other songs more than two decades ago, according to Snapper Music, the London-based label that now owns Glitter’s master recordings.
“Gary Glitter does not get paid,” said a spokesman for Snapper in London who asked to remain anonymous. “We’ve had no contact with him.” The song consistently attracted filmmakers and TV showrunners long before “Joker,” landing in “Meet the Fockers,” “Boyhood,” “South Park” and “The Office.” “People generally come to us,” added the spokesman. “We don’t promote it at all.”
Snapper purchased the masters to Glitter’s catalog in January 1997, several months before the singer’s legal problems began with the discovery of child pornography on his laptop and in his home. His new label’s plans for a retrospective album were quickly canceled. Unlike other legacy artists on the label, Snapper does not sell physical copies of Glitter’s records, which are available only as digital streams and downloads.
In the U.S., rights to the songwriting on “Rock and Roll Part 2" belong to Universal Music Publishing Group, which represents Glitter, and BMG, which represents Leander. A representative for Universal’s publishing group stated: “Gary Glitter’s publishing interest in the copyright of his songs is owned by UMPG and other parties, therefore UMPG does not pay him any royalties or other considerations.”
In 2014, Billboard reported that the song still earns $250,000 in annual performance royalties. And one veteran music supervisor estimated “Joker” likely paid between $100,000 and $200,000 for the song, a total split about evenly between the rights holders to the song’s publishing and its master recording.
“Rock and Roll Part 2” was recorded at Spot Studios in London in 1971 by Glitter and his producer Leander, who played all the instruments. Glitter handled the chants of “Hey!” and led the hand claps.
The single (officially the B-side to “Part 1”) was a top 10 hit in the U.S. in 1972. Glitter was even more popular in the U.K. As his career faded by the 1980s, “Rock and Roll Part 2” remained a chestnut in movies and, especially, a call to arms for fans at nearly every sporting event in the U.S.
“He was quite a startling figure, sort of absurd yet menacing,” says critic Simon Reynolds, author of “Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy.” “The music had an undeniable strangeness to it.” The later revelations about Glitter’s sexual crimes, Reynolds adds, “ruined a lot of people’s pop memories.”
Glitter was arrested and convicted in England in 1997 for downloading a large cache of child pornography. He was later deported from Cambodia and imprisoned in Vietnam for sexual offenses. In 2015, he was sentenced to 16 years in prison for a variety of sex crimes involving minors.
Now 75, Glitter isn’t scheduled for release for another dozen years.
That history has made his songs problematic for filmmakers and their music supervisors. Glitter is only part of a lineage of popular artists who have been accused or convicted of an array of illegal and immoral activities, among them Phil Spector, R. Kelly and Michael Jackson.
“That’s a topic that’s been the subject of a lot of late-night discussions,” says Ramos, who was moved earlier this year by the documentary “Leaving Neverland,” which alleges in excruciating detail that Jackson sexually abused young boys. “It’s a tough one. I love that music. I grew up with that music. But it’s hard to listen to now.”
The force of his most ardent fans and outspoken family members has successfully derailed significant damage to Jackson’s commercial legacy so far. “Even with the documentary, I’m still hearing it,” says Tiffany Anders, a music supervisor on the TV series “PEN15” and “Sorry for Your Loss.” “I’m still getting pitched Michael Jackson like nothing has happened.
“There are so many people now who have made music and gone to jail for horrible, horrible crimes,” Anders adds, arguing that using a song doesn’t equate to endorsing a fallen pop star’s criminal behavior. “I don’t think we should limit ourselves creatively because people are messed up.”
As producer-songwriter Phil Spector sits in a California prison for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson, his music continues to land in such film and TV projects as “Shaft,” “Welcome to Marwen,” “The Voice” and “Glow.” If a classic, early ‘60s Spector track was perfect for a period film, Anders would consider using it.
The licensing of songs can get even more complicated with hip-hop, whose tracks often include samples of older songs from problematic artists who then share co-writing credits and royalties. Anders recently licensed Kendrick Lamar’s “King Kunta,” which includes a Michael Jackson sample, but that did not prevent her from using “the Pulitzer Prize-winning, best hip-hop artist.”
Maintaining a consistent moral line regarding the use of music by artists with checkered pasts will always be difficult. Janet Billig Rich, a longtime music supervisor and manager, remembers a recent meeting with a client at which someone made a suggestion for a song: “Rock and Roll Part 2.”
“The client was like, ‘Gary Glitter? We can’t have that associated with our brand!’” remembers Billig Rich. “I’d advise a client: You have 10 or 20 seconds to do it [in the film]. You want it to do a lot of heavy lifting. You don’t want it to have any baggage.”