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NYFF Review: Paul Thomas Anderson is Trying Something Different With ‘Junun’

NYFF Review: Paul Thomas Anderson is Trying Something Different With 'Junun'

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The first shot of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 54-minute musical documentary “Junun” swirls around at the center of mostly Indian musicians playing trumpets, singing and clapping in a dizzying assemblage of sights and sounds. In the midst of it all, there’s also a skinny white guy with long, tousled hair strumming away at the guitar. That would be Radiohead musician and frequent Anderson collaborator Johnny Greenwood, whose presence in “Junun” alongside Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur speaks to a striking fusion of creative forces at the center of this immersive portrait.

As the sonically rich album comes alive, “Junun” eschews context and lets the audiovisual design speak for itself. Concise yet wandering in its structure, it doesn’t rise to the level of narrative complexity found in Anderson’s many other projects, but compensates with a series of lush sights and sounds.

Shot last February in the 400-year-old Mehrangarh Fort in Rajasthan, India, Anderson’s first non-fiction effort bears little resemblance to his other movies, starting with the immediate perception that it’s not really a movie in any traditional sense. Instead, “Junun” unfolds as an assemblage of moments mostly set within the confines of the fort. The musicians assemble a series of tracks using countless instruments, vocalists and languages ranging from Hebrew, Hindi and Urdu, with the occasional English-language aside in between performances.

The linguistic and ethnic tenor of the collaboration leads to a complex cinematic tapestry in which Western and Eastern traditions seep together from scene to scene. A mixture of ancient and modern sounds, the album is a porous concept, and Anderson follows suit with his alternately vibrant and listless techniques.

While not interested in fleshing out their personalities, Anderson gives the musicians a precise identity as humble servants in the spiritual act of collaboration. On occasion, they just lounge around, killing time whenever the electricity flares out. There’s never any sense of urgency or professional motivation. Aided by three other credited camera operators, the filmmaker follows the ambling quality of these sessions by shifting from static shots to roaming drone cameras that capture the majestic fort alongside the adjacent cityscape.

Much of “Junun” evades the pressures of a traditional behind-the-scene music documentary in which collaborative details come equipped with talking heads. It might be more accurate to describe Anderson’s approach as post-narrative, in that it offers up a uniquely 21st century collage of digital wizardry and homegrown talent that focuses less on structure than unique, fragmentary encounters with cultures fusing together.

In the process of combining acoustic and mechanical effects, the musicians never say much about the particulars of the sound they’re aiming to achieve. But with flutes, drum machines and tubas all somehow finding their ways into the harmonies, “Junun” hints at meaning that transcends specific reference points. (The precedent for this sort of collaboration, if there is one, would probably be Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass’ 1990 album “Passages,” though “Junun” delivers a much livelier sound.) In a fleeting aside, we overhear one of the Americans in the mix describing a group of female vocalists “speaking words they don’t understand.” That becomes a running motif in “Junun,” where overlapping elements allow for a new type of language to take shape.

Despite the meandering trajectory, “Junun” develops a psychedelic, otherworldly atmosphere that serves as the sole linking device to Anderson’s other films. A meditative universe of self-contained artistry, “Junun” offers no clear-eyed statement on its subject, but develops an enveloping internal logic about the thrill of artistic innovation. During a live show in the closing scenes, a producer describes their album as a “very unusual coming together.” Seen in the context of the movie, it’s not only a reference to the performers in front of the camera but the ever-surprising director behind it.

Grade: B+

“Junun” premieres this week at the New York Film Festival this week and is available exclusively to stream on MUBI.com starting June 8.

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