JUNUN Review: Paul Thomas Anderson Documentary Lets The Music Do The Talking

Even shorn of superficial Anderson hallmarks, this doc is a vibrant hour-long trip to India.

There’s a new release from Paul Thomas Anderson, and no matter what you’re prepared to see from the creator of intense Americana such as There Will Be Blood and The Master, his film Junun will probably surprise you.

For one, the new film isn’t anything like Anderson’s prior work, at least on the surface. Junun is a documentary shot in a centuries-old fort in India where guitarist Jonny Greenwood, who has scored Anderson’s last three films, is making a record with an eclectic group of musicians. This movie is shot on digital cameras, rather than film, and it is barely an hour long, with no single driving narrative.

The biggest surprise about Junun, however, may be that it exists at all. Perhaps Paul Thomas Anderson has learned something about digital releases from Greenwood’s band Radiohead. This film was shot in February of this year and announced just weeks before its October 8 premiere at the New York Film Festival. Hours after that premiere the art-house streaming service Mubi made Junun available to the public, so for just a few bucks you can watch it from the comfort of your own home, right now.

While one could say Junun is Paul Thomas Anderson’s documentary about Jonny Greenwood making an album, that would be a gross over-simplification, and one which denies the film’s true nature and its principle pleasures.

Yes, Greenwood is in the film, but the film is not about him; he barely says a word. Few of the subjects speak to the camera; little time is spent observing their conversations. Instead, Anderson’s camera watches as Greenwood and Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur, guitars in hand, sit with a group of exemplary musicians -- singers, percussionists, and even a lively brass section -- to perform songs that fuse the disparate-seeming parts into a cohesive, beautiful whole.

The drive and voice of this film is its music, a collection of songs that need no narrative assistance to establish their character. The songs are devotional, joyous, elemental. “Play it loud,” Anderson says in an email sent to Mubi subscribers, his version of David Bowie’s “to be played at maximum volume” note. There’s a lot to be said for watching Junun at home, where no sense of public decorum has to keep anyone in their seat. The sound is vibrant and pulses with an irrepressible spirit. You could dance through parts of this movie, and probably should.

If this seems like an unusual digression for the filmmaker, set aside what Anderson does as a screenwriter and consider his excellent work as a director, which allows characters to come forward to tell their story with very little sense of artifice or overhead. Anderson facilitates actors giving honest performances, and seems to respond to players who can layer technical control and raw-nerve emotional displays. In that respect, it makes perfect sense that he would be a music guy.

And so Junun isn’t nearly as cut off from the rest of his films as it might first appear to be; it’s just a different type of performance, and directing it is the same skill set applied to an alternate story. Treating it like some “other” is a mistake. Eschewing interviews isn’t the same thing as creating a distance between screen and subject. Take Jonny Greenwood -- a musician, not a writer or actor. Junun doesn’t corner him with interviews, but catches his musical voice meshing with the others, with no constructed reality around the songs.

Junun sets aside most narrative concepts in favor of something more like cinéma vérité. This film observes. It’s about really being in a place, and the light and sound of that space. The music is buoyant and insistent, but Anderson doesn’t try to compete through frenetic editing or movement. The director of Junun is exactly the sort of companion you’d want for a great gig. He’s relaxed, he catches it as it happens, but doesn’t lean over to say “wow, wasn’t that awesome?” after every song.

Prime angles reveal the musicians in action, and capture nice minor moments of non-verbal communication between players. The film is just raw enough to include some jostle when the camera is moved. Anderson flies a drone over Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, where the recordings are taking place, to capture eye-widening vistas. He peers out a window at a gyre of birds whirling over a nearby tower, then takes a moment to visit the top of that tower. When the power goes out (it happens a couple of times), there might be a diversion into the city.

Junun is not didactic, and doesn’t pretend to be authoritative about the music, or the people, or the experience. If a friend called to say “hey, want to come to India with Paul Thomas Anderson and a bunch of great musicians?” I think many people would say “yes” in an instant. This film lets us all make the trip.

***

A few words about Mubi, the service which offers Junun to the public. Rather than attempting to compete with the volume offered by Netflix or Amazon, Mubi presents only thirty films at a time. It’s cheap, at $5 for one month or $3.33 per month if an entire year is paid at once. A new film debuts each day, pushing the oldest film on the site off into the archive. For those who spend all their moviegoing time in the multiplex, nearly everything on Mubi may be new; audiences with a more expansive taste will recognize some favorites, and probably things they never got around to seeing.

At this very moment, in addition to Junun, the catalog includes films such as the early Dennis Hopper oddity Night Tide; the strange, gorgeous and deadpan-funny Swedish movie You, the Living and the 2004 film Take Out, from Tangerine director Sean Baker.

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