In his new adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, Edward Norton plays Lionel Essrog, an orphan detective with Tourette’s syndrome, who wanders the streets of New York attempting to solve the murder of his mentor and father figure. Norton, also the film’s director and screenwriter, changed a few key elements of Lethem’s novel, transplanting the neo-noir from its original setting in the late ’90s to the 1950s. But something Norton did not lose was its singular fascination with music and pop culture.
In the book, Lionel takes a moment from the byzantine workings of the central murder mystery to remember the first time he heard “Kiss” by Prince: “It so pulsed with Tourettic energies that I could surrender to its tormented squeaky beat and let my syndrome live outside my brain for once, live in the air instead… When I listened to him I was exempt from my symptoms.” The Prince passage took up only a page or two, but it was Lethem’s first overt dabbling with characters who lovingly over-identify with a piece of pop culture—his next several books would be brimming with music, movies, and characters who were hopelessly entangled with both. “That was the beginning of me having characters who care inordinately, who care almost dangerously, about popular music,” Lethem tells me.
Throughout the film, Lionel still finds liberation in music, but this time, it’s the era-appropriate hard-bop jazz of a Harlem nightclub. “Jazz is a great analogy for Lionel’s head,” Norton says over the phone. “Hard bop, in particular, is all Tourettic, in the best sense. It’s everything I love about Charlie Parker or Mingus—this anarchistic, improvisational approach to music.”