Monday, November 23, 2015
Paul Thomas Anderson made a movie about music, in Jodhpur, for the album Junun, and it’s glorious… Featuring this track, ‘Roked’
The film begins with footage of the whole crew (all 17 of the musicians involved in the project) sitting in a circle and launching into the horn-laden mantras of “Julus,” with a camera in the center spinning around and fixating on each musician as they launch into their respective interwoven parts on trumpet, tuba, trombone, and less common instruments like the khartal, dholak, Bhapang, and Nagara (each of which are typical of qawwali percussion). It’s pretty impressive to watch a group of musicians this large interacting in unison — which you’ll know if you’ve ever spent time watching bows rise and fall at an orchestra — and it’s dizzying and disorienting in Anderson’s hands as he spins the camera for several rapid rotations. It’s a moment that mirrors general approach throughout the whole film, find an energy that matches the music’s giddy pace and underscore the fact that there’s a whole crew of people working here — a group beyond Greenwood, and even beyond Ben Tzur, who gets first billing on the resulting record.
Anderson has a few tricks up his sleeve for these slower moments though, deploying a drone camera to take flowing aerial shots of the whole compound, or to rocket across a room and out the window when a particularly ecstatic composition calls for it. There’s a whole tradition of verité filmmaking that Anderson’s engaged with, and though it’d largely be relegated to a bonus DVD in the case of something like Junun — the economy and democracy of which is pretty much unparalleled — he manages to justify its existence. It’s neither a dive into the depths of Greenwood’s soul, nor a particularly insightful look into his collaborators’ way of working, but its casually diaristic lens is fitting for the looseness of the proceedings. Neither Greenwood nor Anderson is the type to goof off, but this is as close as either has come to letting some of the tension out, and allowing others to take the lead. And it’s always endearing to watch a master cede the spotlight.
At a brief 54 minutes, it’s a curiosity apt to primarily appeal to Anderson completists, premiering exclusively on MUBI, an online streaming platform for world cinema, beginning on Oct. 9. Its title roughly translated to mean “madness of love,” “Junun” sets its stage simply, with a single title card explaining Greenwood’s trip to the 15th-century Mehrangarh Fort (with the blessing of the Maharaja of Jodhpur) in order to work on the titular two-disc LP.
From there, Anderson’s camera assumes an intimate position first outside, and then inside, the circle formed by Greenwood and his fellow musicians as they sit on the floor of a giant room recording their varied, passionate, alternately joyful and sorrowful songs. Those tracks aren’t denoted by title, just as Greenwood’s producer Nigel Godrich, Israeli composer and singer Shye Ben Tzur, and India’s “Rajasthan Express” members aren’t identified by name until the closing credits. The effect of that strategy is to situate viewers within a very particular creative space that feels at once hermetic, and yet inherently in sync with the larger world surrounding it.
That accord between the interior and the exterior is conveyed via numerous shots which commence alongside drummers and singers and then rapidly fly out Mehrangarh Fort’s windows, suggesting a kinship between the eclectic music and the region from which it draws life — and also, as when electricity shortages lead to recording stoppages, its vibrant power. There’s a trancelike energy to the tunes crafted during these sessions, such that at one point, a player of the kamaicha (a stringed instrument made from goat leather and mango wood) grows heavy-lidded as if semi-hypnotized by his own performance.
With no contextual onscreen information provided, and interview and conversational dialogue kept to a bare minimum, “Junun” functions as an experiential documentary, one in which all meaning and emotion is derived from being wholly submerged in the music on display. Consequently, Greenwood himself remains a peripheral figure, spied over shoulders or amidst his fellow musicians as merely one link in a chain of talented people coming together to beget something unique from their disparate skills.
It’s an austere but stylishly packaged work, serious and respectful, which studies the performers as they play with mostly long unbroken takes that run through to the end of each song. There’s a tiny bit of travelogue stuff, background colour showing the city below the fort where locals mill about and craftsman fix out-of-tune instruments while birds wheel in the sky overhead. But, following the Fred Wiseman school of documentary-making, which eschews naming and explaining, the emphasis is squarely on the music itself, not the people who play it. Comparisons might be made with Wim Wenders’ tribute to the music of Cuba, Buena Vista Social Club, but that was a much more accessible, populist work and it’s doubtful this will do for the Indian folk artists featured here what that older film did for its charismatic, elderly stars.
The weird paradox about this film is that despite the fact that the musicians are identified by name only in the very last minutes of the movie, the name of the director, Paul Thomas Anderson, is splashed all over the advertising campaign. You can’t help wondering if it’s his involvement that’s secured the film a slot in the New York film festival’s lineup this week, making this a bit of a PR coup for Mubi. Because ultimately, it’s a good, solid little picture, but it’s not that great, and certainly not noticeably more accomplished or compelling than many of the other music-themed docs that come out each week with less fanfare.
There's a beautiful, multi-tiered exchange among artists happening in Junun. Jonny Greenwood's unconventional dramatic scores have enriched the last three features by Paul Thomas Anderson, and the director now reciprocates by bringing along his camera to document the unique recording adventure this past spring of an album of devotional music — alternately plaintive and ecstatic, trancelike and propulsive, invariably stirring — on which the Radiohead guitarist collaborates with Israeli composer and singer Shye Ben Tzur, producer Nigel Godrich and a populous band of Indian musicians and vocalists dubbed the Rajasthan Express.
Clocking in at just under an hour, the digitally shot documentary follows its New York Film Festival premiere with an exclusive month-long window on global streaming platform Mubi.com, starting on Oct. 9. It should also prove a popular choice in festival music sidebars as well as a captivating extra to go with the two-disc album of the same name, due Nov. 13 from Nonesuch Records.
Nor could Ben Tzur really be considered the film's chief focus, despite being responsible for its driving wall-to-wall music. Both Anderson's film (which carries no director credit) and the project it documents show a democratic inclusiveness toward all the creative contributors. That's illustrated in a slow pan around the circle of musicians during the mighty build of the opening song, "Julus," as drummers are joined by other dynamic percussionists, followed by the virtuoso trumpet of Aamir Bhiyani and the rest of the killer brass section. Even ace producer Godrich is shown to be just one of the crew in amusing shots of him using a microphone stand to shoo out a persistent pigeon.
Contextual information and dialogue are kept to a minimum, although in stunning footage we watch a young man who feeds meat to hawks that circle the fort's towers each day, continuing a family tradition that stretches back generations. The same goes for a musician who plays a kamaicha, a traditional bowed instrument made of mango wood and goatskin. A snippet of dialogue also reveals that given the vast number of distinct Indian languages, it's by no means unusual for vocalists to be singing in Hebrew, a language they don't speak. (They also sing in Hindi and Urdu.)
For his first foray into both documentary and digital filmmaking, Anderson accompanied Jonny Greenwood, who composed the sinister soundtracks for all three of those aforementioned movies, to Mehrangarh Fort in Rajasthan, India. Here, the Radiohead guitarist joined super-producer Nigel Godrich and musicians from all over India in helping Israeli artist Shye Ben Tzur lay down tracks for a forthcoming album. Anderson was there to film the whole recording process, and the result might have seemed like glorified supplemental material were he the kind of filmmaker willing, under any circumstances, to simply plop the camera down and press record. But from its opening shot—a 360-degree pan around the makeshift studio, the musicians arranged in a prayer circle—Junun locates unconventional vantage points from which to capture the creative mojo. PTA and his team of camera operators seem constantly in motion, ducking and weaving among the brass-band ringers and dholak players, attempting always to find a visual correlative for the sonic energy of the room.
Afforded a small crew in a beautiful foreign city, Anderson can’t resist the occasional detour out of the recording space. In a sly, spiritual nod to his Punch Drunk Love, he tags along with one musician on a day trip through the Rajasthan to get his harmonium fixed. Elsewhere, PTA affixes cameras to drones, securing some sweeping overhead coverage of the environment—and its avian population—for his otherwise scrappy direct-cinema project. (Perhaps the access to drones was what convinced this celluloid loyalist to go digital. Or maybe the loose nature of the project just demanded a cheaper alternative.) Anderson provides little context and no talking-head interviews; when his subjects do gab, it’s very offhand, as when one musician casually discusses his polytheistic belief system. Mirroring the seemingly democratic spirit of the album’s creation, Junun affords the session players a bigger spotlight than their internationally acclaimed collaborators: Greenwood barely says a word, spending most of his screen time hunched over a guitar, while Godrich’s most prominent scene concerns his silent attempts to chase a pigeon out of the studio with a mic stand.