Edward Norton juggles riffs and rhythms as actor, writer, and director of Motherless Brooklyn. The film, a passion project 20 years in the making, stars Norton as Lionel Essrog, a detective with Tourette syndrome navigating the criminal underworld of 1950s Brooklyn. Motherless Brooklyn adapts Jonathan Lethem’s novel of the same name as Lionel uncovers a case of racial discrimination in the city’s housing market, touring through jazz clubs and political rallies while investigating the death of his mentor and falling in love with an activist named Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Fuelled by the jazzy rhythms of the city, the film is a symphony of racial tensions and altered scales.
Norton, speaking with BeatRoute at the Toronto International Film Festival, says he adapted Lethem’s 1990s-set novel for the 50s to increase the audience’s empathy for Lionel. “The novel is really about the experience of being inside this character’s brain, knowing him, and feeling empathy as you watch him navigate this painful and funny affliction,” says Norton.
The beat and syntax of Jazz help put the audience inside Lionel’s head. “One of the arguments for acting and directing was knowing I could experiment with the condition, but also sculpt the balance of the performance in the editing room,” explains Norton. The rhythms of jazz lend Lionel’s spastic tics a certain musicality as Norton’s performance evokes a musician riffing on the scales and echoes the drum beats and trumpet toots of Daniel Pemberton’s score.
The film makes the connection between jazz and Tourette’s explicit when Lionel encounters a trumpet player at a club. “I feel about Lionel the way the trumpet player communicates to him saying, ‘I know that headspace.’ It’s a gift, but it’s a brain affliction just the same,” explains Norton.
“Lionel says back to the trumpet player, ‘But you have a way to push it out and make it sound pretty.’ If I laugh lots of times, I feel lucky to have a vehicle for it. If the dial got turned up a little bit, it could be a paralyzing mental state.” Norton’s empathetic performance draws upon Lionel’s unavoidable awkwardness without making light of it.
Motherless Brooklyn further evokes Lionel’s struggle through an original song, “Daily Battles” by Thom Yorke. “Thom expresses this duality of longing in the heart, but also psychic terror, fracture, and dissonance,” says Norton. “Musically, he expresses Lionel’s headspace perfectly for me.”
“Daily Battles” echoes throughout the soundtrack with classic and contemporary variations, including one by Pulitzer Prize-winning trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who curated the jazz selections in the club scenes. “When Laura reaches out and is so empathetic to Lionel, senses his distress, and helps calm him down, I was nervous about using a known jazz ballad,” explains Norton. “The last thing you want to do is take people out of that moment if they recognize the song or get distracted. Wynton did this beautiful arrangement of Thom’s song and played it like a Miles Davis ballad from the Birth of the Cool era.”
Norton says that Yorke’s ballad captured the essence of the story so strongly that it inspired a revision to the script. “I put it in the scene when Lionel complains about his condition and Laura says, ‘We all have our daily battles.’
“Laura is a Black woman who’s a lawyer in the 50s and everyone only sees her as a secretary,” explains Norton. “You have to pick yourself up and out of your personal struggles and engage with the bigger fights.”