When I heard news of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film (an hour-long docu-style journey to the Jodhpur region of India alongside Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood), I was both intrigued by the sudden departure of his well-crafted, written narratives and trepidatious of his venture into a free-form, ungoverned series of events unbounded by Anderson’s masterful, familiar storytelling. These concerns seemed validated at first, as much of the camera work seemed imperfect, flawed, and not as precise as one is accustomed to when it comes to a filmmaker of Paul Thomas Anderson’s stature. These concerns are also vanquished and turn to dust once Junun’s opening music rehearsal concludes, the title card appears, and you begin to spend time in this ancient fort-turned-music studio, and form a camaraderie with everyone involved.
One could argue that Junun’s major contribution to its success is the music itself – an argument I wouldn’t dismiss, but one that misses the obvious significance of Anderson’s involvement. On the surface, this is just an hour-long version of spring in Jodhpur, confined to a temple wherein musicians practice and prepare for a major performance for the local Maharaja. Simple, compact, seemingly uneventful. But Anderson – with his immense talent that reduces anyone else in his field to a pedestrian workman’s director – takes what could’ve been a mere bonus feature on a DVD release of a feature film that was shot in Jodhpur into something that deserves to exist on its own, and begs you to see it with an audience entombed in an auditorium. It seems as though his pal Jonny Greenwood casually mentioned he’d be spending the spring in India to work with a local music troupe, and Anderson just jumped at the idea of venturing out to capture the process.
The film is full of wonderfully supportive camerawork. In a situation which is comprised largely of people sitting on the ground and practicing their trade, most filmmakers would be hard-pressed to find the nuances and intimacies, and a framework to set the foundation for such a seemingly mundane series of events. Here, then, for the first time, we are privy to explore Anderson’s talent in a situation that prevents any narrative planning – he is at the whim of the series of events that occur, and his goal is to capture them with an eye that focuses on intimation, energy and engagement. Of course, he is possibly the greatest working filmmaker, so it’s not a surprise that this is fascinating and exciting, but it’s wonderful to see him excel in such an on-the-go project that offers little material to work with, where he has no hand in the series or order of events that occur. Even here, Paul Thomas Anderson presents us with talent in storytelling and form that elevates the project.
Suddenly it becomes clear that the aforementioned imperfections – some of the flawed camerawork – adds to the intimacy of the piece, as opposed to reducing its integrity. Anderson got himself a new toy, a drone-camera – a tool, in his hands – that he implements beautifully. There are shots that glide above the fortress as locals wave and the camera touches the sun. The camera filming the happenings of inside the fort, then suddenly leaping out the window and retreating, showing off the majestic size and architecture of the structure. Scenic shots that scale the mountains, atop one of which a man is feeding a flock of birds that swoop around the sky. This is where Paul Thomas Anderson’s compact storytelling comes in, as he lets the locals give us snippets about their lives and history. The meat-throwing-bird-feeder tells us he’s been doing this his whole life. That his father did this before him, and his grandfather – too many generations to count did this before him. During a break from a recording session inside the fort, Anderson asks one of the musicians “what happened?”, why did they stop? “No electricity”, the reclining, exhausted, Indian, fat-bellied man replies, “In India we say ‘24 hour, full power. No toilet no shower, but 24 hour full power’”. These moments tell us things about the people, the culture, and draw us closer into their lives – even if only for 55 minutes.
At the heart of Junun is the music itself, of course. The instrumentation and harmonizing is such thunderous, invigorating material, that even a ten minute music number remains fascinating and exciting. Anderson sometimes cleverly films these from within the circle these musicians are sat in, tracking around the room to capture everyone’s contributions at precisely the right moments (these are the sort of mathematical calculations that others wouldn’t even consider spending time on). He takes us into town, guiding us through with music as we follow certain troupe members as they look for the right keyboards they need, or to tune their harmoniums. We get to see cows on the road, kids taking a mini-cab to school as they wave at the camera and rush off. A living, breathing village and everyday life is propelled by the incredible music that frames these ‘set-pieces’ (which, within a documentary such as this, I suppose they are).
There were times when I wanted to see more of the surrounding city life, or hear certain people tell us more about themselves, but Junun is almost Samsara-esque, in its musically propelled, visually beautiful storytelling form. There is no need for outside information or other context. There is nothing but the fort, the music, and the adventurous trips into town or explorations of nearby locals to engage with. And that’s really all Anderson needs to tell an intimate, one-hour story of a group of musicians practicing their trade, one spring in Jodhpur.
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