Paul Thomas Anderson’s first documentary is an intimate, heartfelt look at what it takes to make music.
The Paul Thomas Anderson film that no one knew about up until a couple of months ago just premiered tonight, and in typical PTA fashion, it was fantastic. In the doc, Anderson follows long-time collaborator and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood to India, where Greenwood is recording an album with Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur and a group of Indian musicians that Anderson referred to after the film as “The Rajasthan Express.” The film itself is very short, only clocking in at fifty four minutes, and focuses mainly on the recording process at the 15th century Mehrangarh Fort, some exterior shots of the crew as they travel around the Indian state of Rajasthan, and a concert that the entire group performs at the culmination of the film.
The men themselves, Paul Thomas Anderson (left) and Jonny Greenwood (right)
Anderson does most of the camerawork for Junun as well, although he admits afterwards that by the middle of the session anyone who wasn’t playing music had a camera in their hands, and he does a beautiful job; although most of the film is confined within the recording studio, giving it that intimate, close feeling, when the camera finally does travel outside the fort it takes us for some really poignant shots (there are some shots of the fort’s exterior and the surrounding state taken from an aerial drone that just really stick with you). He often sets the exterior clips over audio from the band’s recording sessions and they just fit perfectly together, as if they were meant to be; at one point, the group is recording a song and suddenly the camera cuts to clips of one of the musicians feeding birds that are flying overhead, and honestly I almost shed a tear. Well PTA, I guess you proved that you don’t really need Robert Elswit after all (just kidding please never leave).
NYFF director Kent Jones introduced Junun by saying that it felt like a home movie, and I cannot agree with him more; everything in this film plays to that sense of familiarity and affection you feel when watching old family home movies. The few interviews he does with the musicians over the course of the film aren’t really anything deep or groundbreaking; they’re small talk. He asks one person, casually resting on the ground, “Why are we not playing right now?” Another merely just converses with him about what material the strings on his instrument are made out of (spoiler alert: it’s goat skin). There’s no deep, existential conversations that permeate the film, it’s just a group of musicians making music and exploring India. This isn’t to say that the doc doesn’t poke at some deeper themes, because there are elements of culture shock and harmony between man and nature that come across, but these motifs don’t come at the expense of the emotions this film conveys; that is, affection and unity. It’s the sense of nostalgia that you get whenever you look back at pictures of your family way back when, which is a peculiar feeling to have considering I’ve never even been to India, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t make me want to start playing music again. I’ve never felt a more intense mixture of jealousy and awe than seeing one of those musicians play the baritone horn more beautifully than I ever could.
Speaking of the music, let’s not just set that aside so easily; the music itself is absolutely beautiful, and this is coming from someone who never listens to anything like that type of music. It’s festive, somber, regretful, and joyful at all the right times, and I could talk for days about how Paul Thomas Anderson really created a great thing here, but in reality it is completely the music that carried this film. You could hear each individual instrument at some point, whether during the group recording sessions or a solo performance, and all of them sounded so wonderful; I also hate to mention the cinematography in a section about the music, but the scenes in the recording studio just felt so engaging and real in some part due to the camerawork Anderson employs. In particular, the opening scene quite literally places you in the middle of the band as they’re recording a song sitting in a circle, basically setting the tone for the rest of the film.
Here’s a clip of Shye Ben Tzur playing with The Rajasthan Express; in my opinion it only gets better in Junun.
The technicality of the film set completely aside, Junun made me feel so intrinsically close to the people involved, and I’m a sucker for a film that can instill such genuine emotions within me; even more impressive is the fact that it accomplished that as a non-linear documentary, which I usually just fall asleep during. It is a film that thrusts you directly into the midst of people that are living their life’s passion, and that sentimentality comes across bright as day.
If you weren’t lucky enough to see Junun premiere at NYFF, it’s actually streaming on MUBI right now, and the album recorded during the film, also titled Junun, will be released sometime next month. As soon as you see it, feel free to tell me how you felt about it in the comments below.