Soundtrack Review: Motherless Brooklyn (2019)

The soundtrack for Motherless Brooklyn, a film written, directed, and produced by Edward Norton, is available now. The first part of the soundtrack album features, among other things, arrangements of the song “Daily Battles” by Thom Yorke and Wynton Marsalis respectively.

Edward Norton discussed these musical icons. Regarding Yorke, he proclaimed, “No writer of songs from my generation has ever equaled Thom’s capacity for expressing the longing in the heart and the terror in the head at the same time; or for creating gorgeous melody within fracture and dissonance.” When describing Marsalis, he asserted, “A long essay would be needed to encompass the breadth of this man’s musical prowess, let alone what he has done to solidify jazz as America’s classical music.”


The score album (the second album of the soundtrack) features 20 tracks of new music from highly respected Golden Globe-nominated composer Daniel Pemberton (Steve Jobs, All the Money in the World, Ocean’s 8), who Norton hand-picked to compose the Motherless Brooklyn score.

The director heaped tremendous praise on Pemberton, “If there’s a more exuberantly protean talent than Daniel Pemberton working in film music today, I haven’t heard their stuff.” The director further enthusiastically described Pemberton’s capacity, output, and abilities.  “With a quarter of the time he should have had for a score this big, he wrote like a possessed savant and then turned into an absolute boss and produced, in one week of recording, not only what I’ll declare one of the best film scores of the last decade but within it pieces that all the players who recorded them called ‘straight up classics.” 

Norton further described how the film’s music came together. “There’s a certain risk entailed in working with people you love and admire because, let’s face it, collaboration can get messy for all kinds of reasons” explained the Motherless Brooklyn director/writer/producer/star. “The safer choice is to stay a fan or a friend, protect the mystery of your favorite artists and keep marveling at the magic they make from a seat in the audience.  But if you’re lucky enough to get to direct your own film, the allure of ringing up people whose work thrills you, well…. it’s irresistible. And if you’re really lucky…it all goes brilliantly, and you make some magic together. This is the bet I made when it came to dreaming up the music for Motherless Brooklyn. And what you’ll hear on these records is a mashup of the geniuses I rang up: Thom Yorke, Wynton Marsalis and Daniel Pemberton.”


For my review, I focused on Daniel Pemberton’s score album, and a few things jumped out to me right away. The first thing I noticed is that many of the tracks are composed in a jazz-style, which is fitting given the setting is 1950s Brooklyn. The jazz portions are very easy to listen to, and immediately put me back in that time and place. In fact, these tracks reminded me very much of the jazz scores found in older films from the 1950s and early 60s. And I enjoyed listening to it, even though jazz isn’t something I listen to all that often.

The other main portion of the score is what really caught my attention though. The best way to describe this portion, which recurs several times among a number of instruments, is that it just oozes menace. This portion is centered around a five note motif (I’m not sure of the specific tempo being used, but I worked out the pitches) that I partially recreated below:

Screen Shot 2019-10-26 at 10.27.50 AM.png

It’s very simple, but quite effective. Given the many times this motif recurs in the soundtrack, I think that this represents whatever threat is facing Edward Norton’s character in the film. Or it could be symbolic of the situation in general, I’m honestly not sure. But I do know it’s important in some way. If you listen carefully, this motif does appear in a lot of places, but sometimes it’s disguised with different instruments (a technique that I really like in film soundtracks).

Motherless Brooklyn has an interesting soundtrack for sure; Daniel Pemberton left his unique mark on every piece. I hadn’t planned on seeing this film, but after listening to the soundtrack, I might have to put it on my “to watch” list in the future. You don’t often hear jazz-based scores anymore, so that’s a big reason why I’m recommending you check out this soundtrack.

Once it comes out, let me know what you think about Motherless Brooklyn (and its soundtrack) in the comments below and have a great day!

See also:

Film Soundtracks A-W

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