If Christoper Nolan recently borrowed a chapter of the Mayles playbook with his all-too-brief Quay Brothers documentary, quietly observing events unfolding without cinematic editorializing, perhaps one could argue Paul Thomas Anderson pulled out a looseleaf page from cinéma vérité giant Les Blank for his debut doc, “Junun.” While neither as rollicking or rambunctious as Blank’s films, there’s a spiritual connection to “Junun,” a free-form, vibrant documentary about an album recorded by a supergroup of musicians in Northern India that doesn’t feel the need for formal narrative. Maybe it’s as simple as the innate sense that, just like Blank does in his work, Anderson is sitting on the fringes, soaking up the infectious energy and loving every second of what he’s now become part of.
Documenting an album recorded by Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur, Radiohead multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood, and the 15-plus motley crew of Indian folk musicians known as the The Rajasthan Express, ‘Junun’ opens with a magnetic shot that suggests a formal rigorousness that’s quickly spirited away. Set on a tripod, the camera slowly pans around the room, absorbing the deeply locked-in performance that begins to create a fugue state pull from which there is no escape. But then the camera briefly shakes mid-rotation, no one calls cut, the song ends, and the title credits smash up across the footage: JUNUN it reads in bold, white letters announcing its big, brazen intentions.
Anderson’s impressionistic doc reaches for and achieves, in the words of Woody Allen, “total heaviosity,” capturing sonorous drones, viscerally rhythmic syncopations and utterly dynamic music. Playful and raw, “Junun” is unpolished to the extent that Anderson uncharacteristically reaches for whatever is at his disposal—digital cameras, GoPros, and even surveillance-like drones zipping around in the sky.
“Junun” is Paul Thomas Anderson at his most laid back. Not bothering with instructive context, the picture finds him absorbing the energy of the musicians through their instruments and personas. A scrappy film that never feels precious about itself or its subject matter, there’s room in it for Anderson to ask a question off camera, catch a musician dozing off in the middle of a jam, or track the whimsy of a pesky pigeon that continues to make sound problems for the album’s producer Nigel Goodrich. “No toilets, no showers, but full 24 hour power,” one of the musicians jokes, the irony being the haphazardness of India means lots of power outages. And so the doc improvises, wandering outside, and in a way, makes it all up as it goes along.
This all being said, the film is not at all unfocused. Shot in Northern India during a three-week trip at the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, “Junun,” named after a track on the album that means the “madness of love,” it’s certainly a loose and raw musical document. But its intimate, fly-on-the-wall curiosity captures and expresses so much about the musicians and their culture in just a few carefully placed gestures, whether it’s following a musician into town to tune his harmonium or observing a man feeding raw meat to ravenous seagulls. India doesn’t stop for electricity, and neither does PTA and his curious look at the cultural periphery.
“Junun” does that ineffable thing where it communicates its love for the musical fireworks it is witnessing firsthand without any overt salutes. There’s already an unpretentious, unfussy air to the film, but its exuberance for the material is evinced through the various “mistakes” it doesn’t bother to clean up, which gives the film an even greater immediacy. The camera sometimes pulls random focus, PTA will jump behind the wall in the middle of a shot, and one scene in particular, the too-close mics roar into the red of the distortion field. But all these unvarnished elements just feel of the moment, as if you are right there also beholding something akin to a spiritual musical experience.
Musically, “Junun” is hot fire, and luckily for Anderson some of the electric moments of the doc are the filmmaker flipping on the camera and hitting record when the 20-something troupe of musicians click into a trance-inducing syncopated groove that’s somewhere between the JB’s-driven funk of James Brown, the memseric beat of Fela Kuti, and the more traditional, but not less exciting, soulfulness of Qawwali music. The eclectic musicians who back Tzur, The Rajasthan Express, might as well be Jadophor’s answer to Fela Kuti’s bombastic Africa ’70 — a 15-something member Arkestra who laid down swirling, hypnotic rhythms that are intensely infectious.
Radiohead fans or pop culture tourists may walk away disappointed. Those looking for a documentary about Jonny Greenwood or the hipster music doc of the year, have come to the wrong place (the Radiohead musician barely utters a word). But those willing to let these two creative giants in their respective fields broaden their horizons will really get their hair blown back.
For celluloid purists who love Anderson’s devotion to 35 and 65mm, perhaps there will be fewer visual joys here. “Junjun” has no director of photography to speak of, little camera quality uniformity, and there are five people credited as being cameramen, including Anderson himself, producer Nigel Godrich, and Greenwood’s wife Sharona Katan, but it speaks to the of-the-moment approach: if you see something, pick up one of the cameras and shoot it.
At 55 minutes in length, “Junun” is a perfectly digestible chunk of time to spend with this culture and these musicians — many of whom PTA gives their own little idiosyncratic moment to shine — but Shye Bur Tar’s music is so good, you could easily spend hours engrossed in the transfixing play. Just as “Junun” starts to crescendo, it bows out, leaving you satisfied but yearning for more (which is where the accompanying album that comes out in November on Nonesuch factors in).
Paul Thomas Anderson has always been intertwined with music, from his jukebox blasts in his feature films, to making music videos for Fiona Apple and Joanna Newsom. However, with “Junun,” the director’s relationship with music takes greater hold. If “There Will Be Blood” was Anderson’s Kid A, an artistic leap towards left-of-center that informed everything that followed, “Junun” is that quickly recorded, off-the-cuff EP that bands release between fully-fleshed out albums. And as unconcerned as it is with fidelity, it’s still an enthralling, intimate and exciting little riff you’ll be playing on repeat. [A-]