Paul Thomas Anderson’s Junun, a film of nearly constant music, begins in silence. It is February of 2015, and we are in Jodhpur, India. It’s 12:52 PM, and it is time for a call to prayer, according to the on-screen titles — of which there are few, though they provide our only real sense of time and place. And then, Shye Ben Tzur and Jonny Greenwood and the musicians they have assembled begin to play.
Anderson’s camera is situated in the center of their circle, which it pans around casually, almost lazily. This is not the smooth camerawork we’ve grown accustomed to from a perfectionist like Anderson; there’s a herky-jerk or two, uncertain starts and stops, occasionally wavering focus. It doesn’t matter, because to cut those fumbles out would be to cut the music, and that’s unthinkable — the music soars, and we are right in the middle of it.
Junun is a loose, homemade chronicle of the album of the same name, credited to Israeli composer/performer Tzur, Radiohead lead guitarist (and frequent Anderson score composer) Greenwood, and an assemblage of Indian musicians who dubbed themselves the Rajasthan Express. It’s a slender film (54 minutes — shorter than the double album’s playing time), its execution as casual as its origin.
“Jonny said he was gonna go to India,” director Anderson explained in an appropriately brief Q&A following Junun’s New York Film Festival premiere last night, before correcting himself: “Jonny’s wife Sharona actually said they were gonna go to India, and did I want to come. ‘Yes.’ It was that easy.”
The shoot itself wasn’t quite so simple. While Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich was able to assemble the proper recording equipment to turn the 400-year-old Mehrangarh Fort into a studio, Anderson hit a snag. “I had a bunch of newfangled, sexy camera gear that got stuck in customs and never made it out,” he laughed. “So I just had what I had in my carry-on, and that’s what we did it with.”
As a result, from a technical standpoint, Junun is downright amateurish in spots — the image quality is sketchy, and there are moments where cameras are picked up and moved, refocused and reframed, apertures opened. Anderson leaves all the stuff in, all the rough edges that he would normally sand down, and the film is better for it; the style mirrors the vibe of the sessions, where the music is tight but the atmosphere is casual.
And though this is Anderson’s first crack at the documentary form, he dispenses with the usual formalities: not only is his entry point and ostensible subject Greenwood barely seen or heard (he spends most of the film in the background, crouched over a guitar or laptop, seemingly hiding behind his hair; if he says more than a dozen words on camera, I’d be surprised), but he includes no narration, no talking heads, and no real context. We’re just parachuted in, an observer to these sessions, and Anderson said that was purposeful.
“The gold standard for me, of making a film out of music, is Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” he said Thursday, paying tribute to Aram Avakian and Bert Stern’s groundbreaking 1960 documentary, shot at the Newport Jazz Festival. “I just remember looking through this little camera at their trumpet player, and thinking, ‘Well, that kinda looks like Jazz on a Summer’s Day.’” He wasn’t just influenced by such visual allusions — he was drawn to the notion of a music film “just being simple. I didn’t know how much explaining to do about the project, the story, but I thought, in Jazz on a Summer’s Day, they don’t explain anything, you know? And then I watched it again, and the very first thing they put up is this detailed explanation of where this takes place, when it was shot… my memory had gone.”
However it happened, it worked. A flawed memory informed the correct approach. We don’t need proper introductions, because everyone’s role is so clear. We don’t need to know the origin or the aim, because we can witness the outcome: the music, the miraculous music, which tells a story all its own, with more richness than any film could muster, reaching back centuries into the past, and even further into the future.
Junun premiered last night at the New York Film Festival. It is now streaming at Mubi.com.