Sunday, May 24, 2020

Motherless Brooklyn: A jazz masterpiece

It was inevitable, of course; the moment the ink dries on a project such as this, it becomes incomplete.

Mere weeks after my two manuscripts went to bed last autumn, director/scripter/star Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn hit theaters.

The jazz tapestry is impressively diverse in this compelling and luxuriously atmospheric adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s award-winning 1999 crime novel of the same title. Composer Daniel Pemberton’s alternately agitated and poignant underscore is a treat; the cherry on top is a diegetic jazz club set of iconic covers, by a sassy combo ghosted by Wynton Marsalis and several top-flight associates.

“I wrote the arrangements,” Marsalis explained, “and we used some of our Juilliard students, fantastic young musicians, to play.”1

Lethem’s novel, although contemporary to its late 20th century arrival, has the attitude, atmosphere and plot stylings of 1940s and ’50s pulp detective thrillers. Honoring that style as a jumping-off point, Norton retained the primary character — and very little else — while bouncing him back to 1957, and dropping him into an entirely new story that blends fact, fiction and noir sensibilities in a manner we’ve not seen since 1974’s Chinatown.

Lethem’s intriguing protagonist now clashes with a facsimile of the clandestine, Tammany Hall-style empire ruled by the powerful Robert Moses, the real-world, mid-20th century developer/builder who — by manipulating politicians behind the scenes — ruthlessly transformed New York City into his vision of a metropolis. It’s a fascinating slice of history, which Norton cleverly blends with the character that he also plays in this thoroughly absorbing drama.

Lionel Essrog (Norton) and colleague Gilbert Coney (Ethan Suplee), operatives of a small-time detective agency run by Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), tag along when he arranges a meeting with shadowy figures left unspecified. Frank is more than a mere boss to Lionel; he’s also mentor, friend and protector. When Frank winds up dead, this hits Lionel hard, particularly since he’s far from “normal.” He’s obsessive/compulsive and also suffers from an uncontrollable tendency to erupt in nonsense speech: often punning, rhyming and “clanging” against what somebody else has just said. He’s constantly forced to apologize for the “glass in his brain” that prompts such spontaneous outbursts; we recognize this as Tourette Syndrome, a designation not at all familiar to the characters in this re-imagined 1950s version of Lethem’s novel.

But Lionel’s curse also is a blessing; his acute awareness and obsessive attention to detail manifest in total recall, as he sets about trying to solve Frank’s murder. The beguiling threads quickly become linked to developer Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin, as the fictionalized Robert Moses); housing activists Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Gabby Horowitz (Cherry Jones); and Laura’s father, Billy (Robert Wisdom), owner of the King Rooster, a Harlem-based jazz club currently featuring a combo fronted by a gravel-voiced trumpet player (Michael Kenneth Williams, clearly riffing Miles Davis). 

The spider and the fly: Thoroughly irritated by the persistent investigation conducted by
Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton, right), rapacious New York City developer Moses Randolph
(Alec Baldwin) demands a face-to-face,  hoping to make an offer that his pipsqueak tormentor
dare not refuse.
Although much of this film takes place late at night, amid dark and threatening streets, Randolph mostly inhabits a realm of sunlight and sterility. This juxtaposition is handled brilliantly by cinematographer Dick Pope, whose “old-style cinema” lushness is informed equally by noir-drenched, 1950s B-films and mentor photographers such as Robert Frank, Saul Leiter and Vivian Maier.2

The drama makes excellent use of Pemberton’s richly varied underscore. (Norton’s long-established devotion to jazz also surfaced in several of his earlier films, notably 1998’s Rounders and 2001’s The Score, both discussed in Volume 2.) “We [tried] to do Radiohead meets Miles Davis and Charles Mingus on this score,” Pemberton acknowledged. “[We took] the experimental, forward-pushing approach that Radiohead have, but also using the world of the film, which is steeped in jazz and 1950s noir. I [worked] with a brilliant saxophonist in London called Thomas Challenger, building weird loops and mad noises out of just a sax.”3

“I wanted everything in this score to feel organic: to feel like it could have come from that time period,” Pemberton continued, “but I wanted the processes and techniques to be quite modern.”4

The music opens with throbbing intensity — during the initial sequence, when Lionel and Gilbert try to rescue their boss — highlighted by fidgety drum breaks, dissonance and synth that evoke the cacophony roiling in Lionel’s brain. The cues rise to a musical scream that suggests Lionel’s unvoiced wail of despair, when he later watches while hospital ER doctors and nurses fail to save Frank’s life. Lionel eventually trudges sadly home against the film’s primary diegetic vocal: “Daily Battles,” a melancholy jazz anthem written by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, with a vocal by Flea, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

“[It’s like] a lost musical standard that could fall seamlessly into the hands of a small, Kind of Blue Miles Davis jazz ensemble,” Yorke explained, “but at the same time still be modern.”5

Once Lionel gets inside — protected by the walls of a tiny apartment, and an affectionate cat that never judges his awkward social skills — Pemberton anchors this poignant tableau with a gently plaintive piano melody accented by soft muted trumpet work.

“The few moments when Lionel gets clarity — when he sees Laura, or he’s at home and actually feels safe — those are the moments in the film where the score settles into something more serene and slightly more musically conventional. That was another good way for me to give the audience an insight into Lionel’s head.”6

When Laura enters the story, Lionel spends a day clandestinely shadowing her: a montage sequence backed by the same piano and muted trumpet, with a suggestion of emotional warmth supplied by brushed drums and enigmatic sax touches. Laura proves unexpectedly sympathetic to Lionel’s behavioral twitches, and she impulsively brings him to the King Rooster. Charlie Parker’s “Relaxing with Lee” is heard on the car radio — Parker joined by Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Curly Russell and Buddy Rich — during the drive to the club.

Once inside, Trumpet Man and his combo — he’s never named — are in the middle of a set that features (in sequence) Clifford Brown’s “Blues Walk,” an instrumental arrangement of “Daily Battles,” and Charlie Mingus’ “Jump Monk.” Although the on-camera actors look authentic enough, the music actually is supplied by Marsalis (trumpet), Ted Nash and Jerry Weldon (saxes), Isaiah J. Thompson (piano), Russell Hall and Philip Norris (bass), and Joe Farnsworth and Willie Jones III (drums). “Blues Walk” and “Jump Monk” are mid- to up-tempo hard bop with furious solos; the exception — and most significant, in terms of plot development — is the sweet, silky-smooth reading of “Daily Battles,” which opens with quiet piano comping behind the muted trumpet melody. Disregarding the disapproving stares from most of the club’s patrons, Laura rashly dances seductively with Lionel, whose twitches and tics are calmed by this lovely ballad.

Pure magic, both musically and cinematically.

The muted trumpet, quiet piano and doleful sax also dominate what becomes Laura’s theme, as the story progresses: an initially soft cue that gradually develops into an elegant anthem that reflects her passionate desire to bring hope to the disenfranchised neighborhoods soon to be swept away by Randolph. A lengthy reading of this cue — titled “Woman in Blue” — backs the film’s lengthy end credits crawl. 

(When Marsalis and Pemberton finally met, shortly after the latter had tracked the score at London’s Abbey Road Studios, the jazz legend delivered the ultimate compliment to the composer: “You wrote this in the last four weeks? You are a bad motherfucker.”)7

Two soundtrack albums arrived. Motherless Brooklyn: Original Motion Picture Score (WaterTower Music) features the entirety of Pemberton’s work, the 20 tracks arranged (mostly) in film sequence. The aforementioned end credits version of “Woman in Blue” features Marsalis, Nash, Norris, Thompson and Jones. Motherless Brooklyn: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (also WaterTower) features lengthy arrangements of the diegetic combo cues, along with alternate readings of “Woman in Blue” and “Motherless Brooklyn Theme.” Both albums are must-have treats.


1.  Jon Burlingame, “Motherless Brooklyn as a Concert Film?,” Los Angeles Times, November 6, 2019.

2.  Anonymous, Motherless Brooklyn press notes, 19.

3.  Craig McLean, “Daniel Pemberton on His Best Scores,” The Face, November 26, 2019.

4.  Tim Greiving, “Jazz, Noir, and Wynton Marsalis Come Together in Motherless Brooklyn’s Multifaceted Soundtrack,” KUSC Arts Alive, November 18, 2019.

5.  Jayson Greene, “Why Edward Norton Tapped Thom Yorke and Wynton Marsalis for His New Movie, Motherless Brooklyn,” Pitchfork, November 5, 2019.

6.  Greiving, Arts Alive.

7.  Greene, Pitchfork.

1 comment:

M.C. Antil said...

Great stuff, Derek. Thanks. I saw the premiere of Motherless... at a film festival a year and a half ago. And while I wanted to love the film, I could not go there. That said, what I came away loving was the soundtrack. Thanks so much for the backstory.