When writing the big-screen adaptation of Motherless Brooklyn, Edward Norton’s upcoming directorial effort, the actor knew early on that he wanted his longtime friend Thom Yorke to contribute music to the Fifties-set drama.
“Thom is so good at weaving together personal anguish and the crushing politics of the time,” Norton tells Rolling Stone before quoting Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android.” “‘When I am king, you will be first against the wall.'” Norton compares the incisiveness and timelessness of Yorke’s music to the “profoundly melancholy and very political” songs of Billie Holiday, like “Strange Fruit.” “The way that you get the sense in his songs of the difficulty of holding on to your own spirit within times that feel oppressive, and that is so much the straddle that is taking place in this film, which is loneliness and institutional depression and racism,” he adds.
After Norton emailed Yorke his in-the-works screenplay, the singer responded a few weeks later with a piano demo of what would become “Daily Battles,” the musical centerpiece of Motherless Brooklyn. Ahead of the film’s premiere at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival, Rolling Stone is debuting both Yorke’s “Daily Battles,” featuring his Atoms for Peace bandmate Flea on bass and trumpet, as well as Wynton Marsalis’ jazz arrangement of the track. Both versions will feature on a split 7″ out October 4th, as well as the Motherless Brooklyn soundtrack out October 25th. Both the seven-inch single and the soundtrack are available to pre-order now.
“To have [Yorke] write a song for the movie in response to absorbing what the movie and the character are aiming at is a very different thing,” Norton adds. “It’s like Barbra Streisand and ‘Memories’ for The Way We Were; sometimes it can define a thing. Like Lady Gaga, what those guys did with ‘Shallow’ in [A Star Is Born], that’s a stunning song that rises up in the film and out of the film. It rises organically out of the story of the film and it gives you shivers, it’s really a special thing when that happens.”
“Daily Battles” features in a somber sequence where Norton’s Lionel, a Tourette’s-suffering detective investigating the death of his mentor in 1950s New York, returns home to his apartment. The character’s frayed emotions, everyday struggles and isolation are captured in the front half of Yorke’s ballad; the second half of the song, featuring Flea’s tinkered-with trumpet melodies, unfurls after Lionel attempts to unmoor from his reality.
“What I needed in terms of when the characters smokes hash or opium and starts to dream, it speeds this dreamy sense of the character slipping into his haze and it’s wonderful,” Norton says of Flea’s contribution. “It brought so much more to it than even ever hoped.”
Norton admits that, as both the director and actor in the “Daily Battles” sequence, he felt additional pressure to elevate the scene to match Yorke’s powerful contribution. “In the place where you’re using Thom’s song, you realize you’re cutting a sequence. You need to shape around the song and it needs to live in a certain part of the film [and] make that feel like that it’s not plastered on to it; like it’s rising out of the film itself,” Norton says. “Not that it’s a music video, but you feel a certain thing of, ‘Man, I hope I can make this work in an organic way within in the film,’ and I think we did. I love where it sits in the film.”
For Marsalis’ arrangement, which “slayed” Yorke when Norton played it for him, the jazz great recruited protégés like pianist Isaiah J. Thompson and bassist Russell Hall, veteran saxophonist Jerry Weldon and Pharoah Sanders drummer Joe Farnsworth to create what Norton called “a ballad done by Miles Davis in ’57” for a pivotal jazz club scene within the film.
Following its premiere at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival and closing slot at the 2019 New York Film Festival, Motherless Brooklyn, an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel, will open in theaters November 1st.
As Norton previously told Rolling Stone, there is risk in collaborating with friends in artistic endeavors, but thankfully the experience on Motherless Brooklyn only served to strengthen the film, friendships intact.
“I can’t lie: Thom and Wynton, these are friends but they’re also people who have been part of the soundtrack in my life. You don’t want it to go badly, but when you make the bet and push each other up into something that you’re all thrilled with, it’s a dream come true,” Norton says. “It’s a very special feeling.”