Junun (Film Review)

by Steven Spoerl


Over the course of the past year, there have been several hints dropped that this site would begin to integrate more film coverage into it’s regular day-to-day presentation of current releases in music. While film coverage will see an expanded role in the coming months, a music-oriented film premiere seemed to be the perfect place to set that slight change into motion. So, thanks to a generous offer from the excessively talented Nina Corcoran, I collected myself and dove into the heart of the New York Film Festival for the premiere of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Junun.

In the film world’s equivalent of a surprise release, many were taken aback when the project was unveiled a few months ago. For a director that previously averaged roughly four years between feature projects, the two year turnaround from The Master to Inherent Vice was deeply impressive. In tacking a third film onto that production rate just a year later, the director was nearing the realm of the miraculous. However, while Junjun‘s certainly bold, it’s very nature eschews the majority of what comprises Anderson’s fictional narratives- including an actual narrative.

The film itself runs for 54 minutes, in which Anderson presents a loving document of the recording sessions for a collaborative album featuring the considerable talents of Jonny Greenwood (the Radiohead guitarist and Anderson’s recently established go-to choice for score work) and noted Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur. The duo travels to Rajasthan, India and pairs with a formidable collective of musicians who have dubbed themselves the Rajasthan Express.

Viewers are offered very little in the way of context or introduction (apart from a scene-setting title card), as the film immediately dives into a long, unedited take of the musicians committing sounds to record. Filmed from the center of the circle the musicians form, the camera continuously, deliberately swivels and occasionally falters in its motions, betraying the film’s limited resources (the film’s extremely small crew ran into customs issues with the equipment) while adding a surprising amount of depth and character.

After that initial sequence establishes the film’s tone, the ensuing footage offers up a snapshot of a process that serves as a (possibly unwitting) vessel for some much larger thematic subtext, most importantly the seamless merging of vastly different cultures. Junun takes great care in allowing this element of the film to thrive, occasionally offering vibrant (and fairly brief) asides that touch on the musicians’ daily struggles outside of their makeshift Mehrangarh Fort studio; “No shower. No toilet. Full power.” becomes one of the film’s most memorable rallying cries.

In weaving in and out of the studio, Anderson’s able to provide a palpable sense of place that heightens the organic feel of the recording process, which is sidetracked multiple times by a shortage of electricity (a recurring difficulty that provides Junun with some of its most human- and humorous- moments). It also provides a slight contextual illustration of the larger environment that housed the recording, an element that manifests in the music- which is strong enough to spark a near-religious experience. All of those thematic undercurrents collide in the film’s standout sequence, which makes expert use of Nigel Godrich’s drone and produces some startling aerial footage of rooftop bird-feeding, all while a memorably serene, guitar-driven piece elevates the film’s most atmospheric moment.

Several times throughout the course of Junjun, the compositions are framed in a way that manages to both be technically refined and relatively unobtrusive, relegating both filmmaker and viewer to what essentially amounts to an awed bystander. It’s an effect that’s utilized to maximum potential in the scenes where Anderson (or the select few other DP’s) are separated into exterior/interior positions, allowing for a fuller scope of the proceedings. In that separation, Anderson manages to find yet another complementary angle that effectively renders him another part of the artistic equation.

By the time the film’s wrapped, all of the key players have been granted their long-awaited introductions in closing slides and– true to the film– none of them were given a more significant slot than any of their collaborators. In underscoring the film’s thesis sequence, once again providing a setting where everyone’s on equal footing, Junun injected its closure with both gravity and elegance, allowing Anderson a full capitalization on an admirable statement.

After the film’s screening, Anderson sat down with Kent Jones– the director of the festival– and shared a deep appreciation for the 1960 classic Jazz On A Summer’s Day, a film which similarly eschewed traditional narrative in favor of an approach more suited to a diarist. In sharing anecdotes about the film’s process and on-the-fly evolution, Anderson was able to paint a compelling portrait of a project characterized by determination and a DIY ethos- which tends to be the art that’s most worthy of praise.

Watch a 2014 performance of “Alchemy” below and catch the film on MUBI, where it will be premiering online at 3 AM EST.