Junun / Paul Thomas Anderson / 2015 /
Active Ingredients: Music; Focus on the rhythms of travel
Side Effects: Unfocused camerawork
[Junun is available to stream exclusively on mubi until November 9th.]
I’ve begun to notice an unabashed strain of humanism in Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent output, an emotional underpinning to the director’s technical virtuosity that has made his work sing in new and exciting ways. Beginning with the warm, empathetic and open-hearted coda of The Master and continuing through the aching and tender nostalgia of Inherent Vice, this breath of benevolence in PTA’s most mature films finds its purest expression in the positively lovely Junun.
A sprightly, off-the-cuff jaunt of a documentary, the 50-minute Junun depicts the recording of a unique musical collaboration between Radiohead guitarist and frequent Anderson composer Jonny Greenwood, Israeli musician Shye Ben Tzur and an Indian qawalli collective playing percussive devotional music. Recorded at a beautiful fort in Jodhpur, the music is fiery, passionate and intoxicating; Anderson’s companion-piece is both punchy and laconic, a cinematic travelogue capturing the spirit of communion and dialogue that pervades the music.
Mixed in with the fly-on-the-wall peek into the recording sessions are vibrant montages of the musicians hanging out, nights out in town and drone footage capturing the surroundings of the hilltop fort. It’s many of these ancillary moments that give Junun its own life, independent of the extraordinary music, moments that capture some of the most memorable experiences of travel: the downtime spent on a journey, the unique heat of an unfamiliar sun, the sensations and tactility of a new place.
Eschewing a buttoned-up formality that would have been singularly unsuited to the project, Anderson instead concentrates on the beat of his experience as a traveller, the rhythm of life and the assemblage of personalities surrounding the music. As a result, Junun may at times feel minor or tossed-off—handheld cameras bounce and lose focus, equipment is not hidden from the frame—but there’s a spirit and a verve to the film that more than compensates. There’s also a deceptive sophistication to the editing and construction of the piece that communicates, in its own unassuming way, the disorienting and kaleidoscopic experience of both travel and music.
Internalizing and expressing the spirit of the music, Junun is positively joyous. From driving percussion to explosive brass and deeply soulful vocals, the film captures the technique and excitement of playing music in a way I’ve rarely seen in film. Kazimierz Karabasz’s masterful short film The Musicians uses a similar stylistic approach to achieve a wry, sarcastic tone, but Junun is earnest and sincere in its attitude—encapsulating the same unironic voice that I’ve responded so strongly to in Anderson’s recent work.
Performing music demands a unique kind of communication and collaboration, and Junun shows this interaction at work. Many pieces are upbeat and energetic, seeing musicians smile and bob their heads at each other from across the room, sharing the intoxication of a moment they, together, have breathed into life. But another sequence, the most profound and memorable in the film for me, captures another side of musical collaboration, a more raw and naked intimacy. As this scene shows, making music with another person is almost like making love: it requires complete candor, a dangerous, total and exposing openness. But the result of that openness is touching and beautiful. Many of the performers in the film may barely be able to understand each other through broken English, but they achieve a rare and intimate communication through music.
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