How do you review a home movie with a great soundtrack?
In a lot of ways that’s precisely what Paul Thomas Anderson’s Junun is. Anderson shot the footage earlier this year, chronicling a month-long recording session between Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, Isreali composer/musician Shye Ben Tzur, producer Nigel Godrich, and a group of Indian musicians known as the Rajasthan Express. The sessions took place at Mehrangarh Fort, a 15th century structure in northwest India.
A slight 54 minutes, there’s a haphazard quality to a lot of the camerawork, and Anderson eschews talking head interviews and contextualizing information. Instead, it’s footage and music, footage and music, with an emphasis on the performers.
But that might be the reason Junun works on its own terms.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Release Date: October 9, 2015 (MUBI)
Junun is all about the music being made, so much so that the filmmaking seems a secondary concern. While multiple angles are covered during the recording sessions, we still see cameras suddenly picked up and repositioned, and get views of the ornately designed ceilings of the fort in the process. It sets the viewer down among the musicians as they perform or just outside the room looking in. There are a few humorous moments, like when a pesky pigeon winds up in the room, and there are moments of downtime when the musicians wait for rolling blackouts to pass. Occasionally Anderson offers a sublime cinematic flourish, like a drone shot of dozens of falcons swirling around the top of the fort as a man tosses them bits of meat. In the sunset and sunrise, Rajasthan looks gorgeous–gold skies, and many of the buildings an inviting blue–and a few times in Junun there are excursions into the bustle of the city itself.
Anderson returns continually to the music–and more so the members of the Rajasthan Express and Tzur than Greenwood–blanketing the film in the songs from end to end. The collaborative compositions are mesmerizing, structured on galloping percussion, repetition and variation, and virtuosic touches. It might be a testament to the music that it elevates many of the images that would seem otherwise too much like home movie fare. The falcon shot might be the best marriage of sound and vision, though the music also invigorates plain moments walking the streets or shooting the people of Rajasthan from a tuk-tuk.
I caught Junun in the Walter Reade Theater. The music resounded through the space and the seats. It made me wonder how different my experience would have been if I watched it via the VOD service MUBI. Something visceral might be lost from the big screen to the laptop, and unless you’ve got a really good sound system, it might fail to have the same impact. But Junun is worth a watch, or even just worth a listen, and not because it’s a new Paul Thomas Anderson movie. It’s more like a Paul Thomas Anderson music recommendation–check these guys out. It might be the first of his movies you can just play in the background.