The announcement of Paul Thomas Anderson’s first documentary earlier this year caught a lot of people off-guard. For starters, it was to have its world premiere mere months after being first announced, would run for under an hour and was apparently focusing on Jonny Greenwood’s trip to India. Whilst PTA has been the subject of a documentary as expansive as his films in Mark Rance’s That Moment: Magnolia Diary, this latest venture seemed too slight, too small in scope.1 Away from the hype and speculation, Junun is certainly an interesting curio in a very impressive filmography, but it also is something far more interesting than initial reports of the film would have let on.
It’s not actually about Greenwood, who serves as one member of an eclectic musical collaboration anchored around the music of Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur. Tzur had been performing for years with ‘The Rajasthan Express’, a group of musicians from across India, melding traditional Sufi qawwal music and Hebrew lyrics. Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich rounds out the group, though his time on screen is defined most by his efforts to get a pigeon out of the studio.2 They recorded Junun (the album) across three weeks in a 15th-century fort in Jodhpur, and Junun (the film) is as much a joyous diaristic account of its creation as it is a longform advertisement for the album’s November 13 release.
The first twenty minutes are as much a test for PTA as it is his audience, the very nature of the highly auteurism-geared marketing positions viewers to look for signs of his formal tendencies. For the most part, though, they are totally absent, and as the loose nature of storytelling and lack of any real structural signposts shows, this film is an escape for its director, a celebration of the process of musical collaboration sans feigning comprehension of it. PTA and his camera team rove around the makeshift studio with a fish eye lens, toy with drone cinematography, let the image go in and out of focus; this is the director as enthusiastic amateur, and that enthusiasm is infectious. Whilst the majority of the film is focused inwards – interior shots of the band performing – it’s plain to see Anderson’s interest in the natural landscape. The perspective, for the most part, is one of distance, both reflecting the nature of these artistic tourists but also acting as a visual and actual respite from recording.
That said, it’s the scenes outside the studio that enhance everything within; a man feeding meat strips to swooping eagles on top of the fort tells Anderson that this practice has been in his family for generations, complementing the similar statement made by kamaicha player Dara Khan. When we move through the streets of Jodhpur en route to a musical repairs shop, it’s fascinating what images catch Anderson’s eye; an abundance of power point plugs on a shelf minutes after we hear about another power failure in the fort, a collection of childrens’ schoolbags hanging from the back of a rickshaw reflect both cultural divisions and similarities.3 Most of all, though, what seems to catch Anderson’s eye is the drone, which he propels outwards from the fort and up into the sky, or has hover above the circling eagles.
The visual and narrative patterns become a lot more defined past halfway, the delightful tangents into instrument tuning, vocal coaching, the increasingly tight focus on faces in later songs. It had never occurred to me before seeing Junun that there’s an intense beauty in the pregnant pause at the end of a runthrough of a song, the performers caught in a still-tense silence, anticipating not necessarily congratulations but rather a mutual acceptance of conclusion.
A lot of this comes across because of the wit at work in the editing. One of the film’s biggest strengths is actually in the work of Andy Jurgensen; amusingly cutting through the bombast of the film’s opening number, keeping the energy of each successive number matched though his cuts moreso than the visuals themselves. The back and forth between his montage work and PTA’s tendency to keep the camera rolling (particularly in one horns-heavy number) becomes an amusing tug-of-war in both pace and focus.4
The film culminates with a live performance of selections from the album for a large audience and former Maharajah of Jodhpur (in name only, he still seems to have the equivalent authority) Gaj Singh II, but even then it is intercut with shots of their recording and rehearsals, suggesting that even the grandeur of performing pales in comparison to the very act of discovery in collaboration. Junun might be hard to classify, it can’t be pigeonholed as a music doco or a travel diary, but as a freeing filmic experiment from one of the most interesting filmmakers working today, it’s very much worth the hour-long commitment. To quote Jonny Greenwood’s first words captured on camera in Junun: well played.