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Edward Norton Shares His Vision For The Music Of 'Motherless Brooklyn'

Edward Norton
Vava Ribeiro
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Courtesy of the artist
Edward Norton

Motherless Brooklyn is a new film about a private detective trying to solve a murder in 1950s New York. It's based on a novel by Jonathan Lethem and features an ensemble cast that includes Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones, Michael Kenneth Williams, Leslie Mann, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe and Edward Norton, who adapted the novel for the big screen.

Motherless Brooklyn is film noir with a twist. Norton plays a private detective named Lionel, but not like the kind made famous by Humphrey Bogart or Jack Nicholson. Norton's character has Tourette's syndrome, which means he can't always control what he says out loud. "I really liked the idea of a detective who, at every moment that the smooth-talking tough guy would do a certain thing, this guy does the opposite," Norton says.

Music is a big part of Motherless Brooklyn, and the film's soundtrack sets the mood with several elements. There's an original score, some classic jazz from Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus, as well as a song from Thom Yorke of Radiohead, the band that came to mind when Norton first read the novel in the late 90s.

"I had this intuition, this feeling when I was reading this character of Lionel, with his sensitivity but then this incredible jangley dissonance of his Tourettic mind. That was the era of Radiohead [releasing] OK Computer ...I remember having this thought [about] the way Thom Yorke's voice had that longing in it but the music had this wonderful electronic dissonance and fracture. I thought to myself 'That's a great modernist rendition of the way this guy's mind works in Motherless Brooklyn.' "

But Thom Yorke wasn't the only one who helped Norton with the film's music. Norton tapped American virtuoso trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis to help curate the classic jazz songs in Motherless Brooklyn and composer Daniel Pemberton for the original score.

Listen in the player above as I sit down with Norton to talk about the sound behind his vision and how he came to write, direct and star in Motherless Brooklyn.

Copyright 2021 XPN. To see more, visit XPN.

Since 2017, John Myers has been the producer of NPR's World Cafe, which is produced by WXPN at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Previously he spent about eight years working on the other side of Philly at WHYY as a producer on the staff of Fresh Air with Terry Gross. John was also a member of the team of public radio veterans recruited to develop original programming for Audible and has worked extensively as a freelance producer. His portfolio includes work for the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, The Association for Public Art and the radio documentary, Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio. He's taught radio production to preschoolers and college students and, in the late 90's, spent a couple of years traveling around the country as a roadie for the rock band Huffamoose.