Home > Reviews > MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN – Daniel Pemberton


November 19, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Motherless Brooklyn is a period drama-thriller written and directed by Edward Norton, based on the acclaimed novel by Jonathan Lethem. It’s set in New York in the 1950s and stars Norton as Lionel Essrog, a detective who has Tourette’s Syndrome, a mental disorder marked by involuntary physical and vocal tics. Essrog works for Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), the owner of a small-time neighborhood detective agency, who is shot with his own gun by unknown assailants. As Lionel and his fellow detectives start to probe further into Frank’s murder they uncover a complicated conspiracy of power, corruption, and racism that stretches all the way to the top of New York’s political structure. The film co-stars Willem Dafoe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bobby Cannavale, and Alec Baldwin, and reminds me very much of films like Chinatown, wherein a relentless underdog detective takes on the wealthy and privileged and finds that the combination of money and influence is a powerful motivator for unscrupulous men – and that they will squash anyone who gets in their way to attain them. Norton optioned the story of Motherless Brooklyn almost 20 years ago, just after the original novel was published, and it has taken this long to be able to transfer his passion project to the silver screen.

Music plays a surprisingly important role in the plot of Motherless Brooklyn. Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s character Laura Rose, who becomes an important ally and eventual lover of Lionel as the story unfolds, lives in an apartment above a jazz club speakeasy, and one of the performers at the club (Trumpet Man, played by Michael K. Williams) is modeled on classic African American jazz trumpeters of the 1950s like Miles Davis. As such, when it came to finding the musical voice for the movie, Norton wanted a jazz soundtrack that could pull double duty, acting as both in-movie source music and non-diegetic dramatic score. Initially, Norton approached Thom Yorke of the British rock band Radiohead, who agreed to provide an original song; his resulting effort, “Daily Battles,” is heard both as a vocal version, and also as an instrumental theme embedded into the score proper. The score was then written by British composer Daniel Pemberton, who collaborated with the great jazz musician Wynton Marsalis to bring an authentic sound to Lionel’s world.

Together this three pronged musical approach – Yorke’s song, Pemberton’s score, Marsalis’s performances and arrangements – coalesced into the sound of Motherless Brooklyn. In describing his approach to the score, Pemberton says “The film is steeped in jazz. It seems to make so much sense to latch onto that for the score, but I didn’t want to do a conventional jazz score. So I thought – how do we make something new?” He went on to say “One of the things I love about jazz is its abstract nature, whereas pop music always gives these hooks and riffs you grab onto quickly. Jazz always has this mysterious color to it. I wanted to get that into the score, but in a very different way.”

His different way was to craft three specific thematic ideas that all emerge from the same core sound, but drift off into different directions to depict different characters and concepts. There is a 4-note theme for Lionel which is called the ‘Motherless Brooklyn theme,’ a 5-note theme which seems to represent the city of New York itself – the overarching corruption of the city – and the personification of that through Alec Baldwin’s character Mo Randolph, and then a 7-note theme for Laura Rose called the ‘Woman in Blue theme’ which is warmer, more romantic, and indicative of the goodness that stands in direct opposition to everything that Mo Randolph represents.

The final element of the score is its most challenging aspect, which is the progressive jazz that represents the Tourette’s-fuelled turmoil inside Lionel’s mind. Director Norton explains that “Jazz is a great analogy for Lionel’s head. Hard bop jazz, in particular, is all Tourettic, in the best sense. It’s everything I love about Charlie Parker or Charlie Mingus – this anarchistic, improvisational approach to music.” To this end, Pemberton created a wild, vivid recurring sound performed by a digitally-manipulated saxophone which could very easily be called ‘goose honk jazz,’ a wildly chaotic and impressionistic marker which infiltrates numerous cues, especially those which underscore scenes where Lionel himself is especially agitated and emotional, and prone to the verbal outbursts and tics which plague his life.

Instrumentally, the majority of the score is performed by a small chamber orchestra, which is then augmented by Wynton Marsalis and his jazz soloists – Marsalis himself on trumpet, Isaiah J. Thompson on piano, Ted Nash and Jerry Weldon on saxophones, Philip Norris and Russell Hall on bass, and Willie Jones III and Joe Farnsworth on drums. The three core themes weave in and out of the score constantly, with each theme receiving several prominent performances, while Lionel’s Tourette’s motif insinuates itself on a regular basis, breaking through to cut the mood. The opening “Tyrannous” is a great example of this – it begins with a series of abstract collisions of sound, harsh and dissonant writing for trumpet and soprano sax, until the 1:39 mark when the five-note motif that forms the basis of the New York Theme appears for the first time, heard in dark cellos.

The New York theme crops up frequently thereafter, alluding to the ominous presence of Mo Randolph and the Brooklyn Borough Authority in the background of everything. Cues like the nervous and edgy “Sharp on the Line,” the mysterious and moody “Plaza Speech,” “Brother,” and the especially sinister “Something Not Telling” feature it prominently, with the latter cues featuring some clever writing wherein the theme is passed between violins, cellos, and muted brasses, while nervous ticking cymbals and timpani hits increase the intensity.

Lionel’s main theme, the Motherless Brooklyn Theme, is showcased prominently in “Motherless Home,” “Motherless Brooklyn,” and “Motherless County,” in each of which Pemberton performs the theme on a soft and solemn solo piano, accompanied by gorgeous soulful solo trumpet lines. There are some lovely piano and bass riffs in the second half of “Motherless Brooklyn,” while in “Motherless County” the soft brushed snares and muted trumpets give the whole thing a slightly wistful, nostalgic sound. This feeling of gentle romance continues on through the performances of the Laura Rose Theme, especially those in “The Woman in the Photo” and the gorgeous “Woman In Blue” where the theme is carried by a lush flurry of cascading trumpet notes augmented by warm piano chords, and a dreamy attitude.

A couple of action cues give the score some energy and life. “Fire It Up” underscores an extended car chase through the streets of New York as Lionel follows Frank, who has been kidnapped by some heavies; here, the jazz solo performances are aggressive and agitated, with heavy brass chords, shrieking trumpets, and rampaging drums and cymbals keeping the tempo high. The subsequent “Emergency Room” is anchored by a bank of agitated colliding trumpets, buzzing, chaotic, frenetic, as well as repeated statements of the intrusive Lionel’s Tourette’s motif, a battery of squeaking saxophones and dissonant honks that speak to his sense of panic and fear. Later, both “In or Out” and “Across Harlem” revisit similar ideas, and are full of rhythmic pulses, roaring and rolling percussion, frantic trumpet lines, and intensely vivid statements of Lionel’s Tourette’s motif.

Other cues of note include the unusual abstraction of “No Wisdom,” which sounds like Pemberton took a leaf out of Jerry Goldsmith’s book of odd ideas and had his performers perform with their mouthpieces backwards. “Penn Station” sounds like everything was manipulated and processed to sound backwards, and has some peculiar buzzing sound effects. “Close, The Right Information” is written for a lonely trumpet with despondent piano accents, while the final cue “Woman in Blue (End Credits)” is a series of extended ruminations on the Laura Rose theme featuring Wynton Marsalis on solo trumpet.

It’s also worth mentioning the accompanying song album for the Motherless Brooklyn soundtrack, which features Marsalis and the gang performing exemplary jazz standards by the likes of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Mingus, but which also contains performances of the Thom Yorke song “Daily Battles”. The vocal version, performed by Yorke with an accompanying trumpet performance by Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, is a delicate, brittle piece of navel-gazing anchored by Yorke’s aching falsetto that some will find annoyingly precious, but actually speaks quite directly to the mental health issues that Lionel suffers throughout the film – so much so that Norton had his character actually use the song title in a line addressing his illness. The jazz trio version appears in a nightclub scene and underscores the first dance (and first kiss) between Lionel and Laura Rose, and acts as a soothing salve for Lionel’s neuroses.

You absolutely have to like jazz to be able to even start the score for Motherless Brooklyn, and then you have to be able to tolerate some very abstract and challenging jazz performance techniques in order to finish the whole thing. What Daniel Pemberton has done here is about as authentic as any jazz an English kid could ever hope to write; in fact, Marsalis himself quipped that Pemberton was a ‘bad mother fucker’ when he first saw his charts! But, beyond that, the effective way that Pemberton has used this jazz as dynamic and dramatic underscore is very impressive indeed, and further illustrates why he is in such increasing demand these days for a wide variety of television and film projects. However, anyone who finds the most aggressive and taxing jazz to be a step too far will undoubtedly find Motherless Brooklyn to be tough going. Personally, I found the whole thing to be quite fascinating, a perfect accompaniment for the conceptual ideas behind the film, an appropriate evocation of a specific time and place, and a clever way of bringing the tortured inner-workings of a disjointed mind clearly into focus.

Buy the Motherless Brooklyn soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Tyrannous (3:12)
  • Sharp on the Line (3:45)
  • Fire It Up (4:01)
  • Emergency Room (2:49)
  • Motherless Home (1:13)
  • No Wisdom (4:00)
  • The Woman in the Photo (1:11)
  • Plaza Speech (4:07)
  • Borough Authority (2:24)
  • Woman In Blue (3:23)
  • Brother (3:31)
  • Red Rooster (1:29)
  • Motherless Brooklyn (4:41)
  • Something Not Telling (2:53)
  • In or Out (4:36)
  • Penn Station (3:19)
  • Across Harlem (5:50)
  • Close, The Right Information (2:05)
  • Motherless County (1:26)
  • Woman in Blue (End Credits) (6:03)
  • Woman in Blue (written by Daniel Pemberton, performed by the Wynton Marsalis Jazz Combo) (6:03)
  • Daily Battles (written by Thom Yorke, performed by Thom Yorke feat. Flea) (2:53)
  • Relaxing With Lee (written by Charlie Parker, performed by Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Curly Russell, and Buddy Rich) (2:48)
  • ‘Round About Midnight (written by Thelonious Monk, Bernie Hanighen, and Cootie Williams, performed by Babs Gonzales) (3:38)
  • Blues Walk (written by Lou Donaldson, performed by the Wynton Marsalis Jazz Combo) (2:56)
  • Daily Battles (written by Thom Yorke, performed by the Wynton Marsalis Jazz Combo) (3:24)
  • Jump Monk (written by Charlie Mingus, performed by the Wynton Marsalis Jazz Combo) (4:01)
  • Delilah (written by Victor Young, performed by the Wynton Marsalis Jazz Combo) (5:05)
  • On A Misty Night (written by Tadd Dameron, performed by the Wynton Marsalis Jazz Combo) (5:35)
  • Motherless Brooklyn Theme (written by Daniel Pemberton, performed by the Wynton Marsalis Jazz Combo) (3:40)

Running Time: 66 minutes 06 seconds – Score
Running Time: 40 minutes 05 seconds – Soundtrack

Hollywood Records (2019)

Music composed by Daniel Pemberton. Featured musical soloists Wynton Marsalis, Isaiah J. Thompson, Ted Nash, Jerry Weldon, Philip Norris, Russell Hall, Willie Jones III and Joe Farnsworth. Recorded and mixed by Sam Okell. Edited by Katherine Gordon Miller. Album produced by Daniel Pemberton.

  1. Amy
    August 16, 2021 at 9:24 pm

    Listen to Clifford Brown’s 1954 The Blues Walk. That is the song that’s in the movie, not Donaldson’s of 1958.

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