Junun Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

[Ghoulardi Film Company; 2015]

Styles: Documentary
Others: It Might Get Loud, Instrument

Israeli musician Shye Ben Tzur composes his own version of Qawwali, a Sufi devotional music developed in South Asia and popularized in the West by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, among others. Tzur sings his in Hebrew as well as Urdu and Hindi. His most recent album, Junun, is a collaboration with Johnny Greenwood; Greenwood, along with Nigel Godrich (who records and produces Junun), form the braintrust of English band Radiohead. “Junun” is a transliteration of a Hindi word that translates as “passionate, obsessive madness,” or “the madness of love.” Recording for the album took place at Mehrengarh Fort in Jodphur in the Rajasthan region of India; the fort itself was built in the 15th century by a leader of Rathore clan. In order to build it, a lone hermit known as the lord of birds had to be removed. In response, the hermit cursed the fort with an ongoing drought.

All of this is cool and interesting and has a poetic weight to it that a filmmaker might latch onto if forced to tell a story about the making of an album at a remote four hundred fifty year old fort. Paul Thomas Anderson, in his documentary about the recording (also called Junun), elects to leave all this in the background, unmentioned. He slips in a title card up top with the composers, project, and location, but otherwise simply offers up footage of the recording process. There are no talking-head interviews with the marquee names in the film, no discursive chatting about the scope and ambition of Tzur and Greenwood’s project, no voice-over, and no history. The resulting film is refreshing and to-the-point, clocking in at a tidy fifty-five minutes.

What Anderson does, instead, is offer the viewer uninterrupted takes of the recording as well as meditative accounts of the physical artifacts of the album-making process. The few people who do address the camera directly are members of Tzur’s band, who call themselves the Rajasthan Express. Featuring horns, percussion, chanting vocalists, and generations-old homemade bowed instruments, the musicians give the impression of journeyman professionals — session guys who sleep on mats where they rehearse, grabbing naps while other musicians rehearse backing vocals and overdub handclaps. Anderson loves interacting with these musicians; at one point he follows them into town to get a harmonium repaired (Anderson has another movie featuring a busted harmonium). The camera lingers in a repairman’s storefront as a musician confirm that his toy Casio keyboard is in tune. The background singers admit that they don’t speak the languages they’ve been asked to sing in, but with a shrug they remind the viewer that India has so many languages that this is common for them. A percussionist rouses from a catnap to cheerfully inform him that they are taking a break due to a power outage, a common occurrence at Mehrengarh. He smirks and shares a workmanlike Indian catchphrase with Anderson: “No toilet, no shower: full power twenty-four hour.”

Anderson fixates on the location almost as much as on the process of recording. For each of the several time-lapse shots of recording equipment being set up and taken apart, there’s a chunk of drone footage of the surrounding area. The fort lies at the top of a hill; a man goes to the roof each day to feed bits of loose meat to the scores of birds that constantly circle. At one point a pigeon comes through the window of the recording room and coos as Tzur and Greenwood amble through their guitar lines. Godrich tries to force it out with a microphone stand, to no effect.

Anderson is helped along immensely by the fact that the music being made at Mehrengarh is epic and alluring, built on moods alternately elegiac and driving. Very few people will shell out for a MUBI subscription to see a Paul Thomas Anderson film without knowing that Johnny Greenwood composed the scores for the last few Anderson films. Greenwood’s contributions to the music do indeed feature Radiohead’s trademark laptop blips & bloops as well as the composer’s beloved ondes martenot. Greenwood spends most of the film bent over his guitar, prodding at knobs and pedals. The recording project requires him to incorporate his sounds into the decidedly un-digital music created by the Rajasthan Express. Anderson again fixates on the physical components of the recording, as we see the percussionists and vocalists weave their sounds into Greenwood’s programmed loops.

Junun (the film) becomes, for Anderson, a meditation on process. He shows us the band preparing; we see musicians tune their mouth-harps and clear their spit-valves. We see backup singers lip-sync small talk while Tzur intones mournfully into a microphone beside them. Anderson is fascinated with the way this work is done, and by the film’s end he shows us some of his process as well, filming himself as he pilots a drone and again as they pose for a cast photo. While distinct from his other films in many ways, Junun shares themes with other Anderson films like There Will Be Blood: he wants us to see how people accomplish difficult, incredible things in difficult, incredible places.

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