Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Movie Review: Junun

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson.

Junun is perhaps the strangest movie of Paul Thomas Anderson’s career – not because it’s really weird in anyway, but because of how the whole project feels like it’s something Anderson just tossed off in his spare time – which for a perfectionist like Anderson is the strangest thing imaginable. It’s a 54 minute music documentary about Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur, Radiohead guitarist (and frequent Anderson collaborator) Jonny Greenwood, and a host of Indian musicians gathering at a monastery in India to record an album. Anderson throws us right into the middle of the film in its opening shot – a stunning one, that begins in silence during a call to prayer, and then breaks into song as Anderson’s camera slowly pans around the circle (he’s in the middle) to listen to the song played out in its entirety. This sounds like an Anderson shot – he is a modern master at long tracking shots, but doesn’t feel like one – mostly due to the fact that Anderson is shooting digitally for the first time, giving the movie a different look and feel, and also because the shot itself doesn’t move smoothly – it’s at time jerky in its movements, something that Anderson would normally reshoot. But here, he cannot reshoot, and he can’t just cut it out, because then he wouldn’t be capturing the entirety of the song – and it’s a wonderful one, and he’s not going to let that happen. Anderson does not provide any real context during the course of the movie about who or what is going on – he mainly spends the film inside the makeshift studio, watching the music being performed – only venturing outside – aside from some drone shots – with one of the musicians on an errand to get his instrument tuned. Other than that, Anderson just lets everything play out in front of the camera – as beautiful and mystifying to the audience as it is to him.

The star of the movie really is the music itself. Strangely, although Anderson is there because of Greenwood – who is probably the only musician involved that most people in North America will be familiar with – he certainly doesn’t concentrate on Greenwood at all. He’s mostly seen in the background during the recording sessions, with his hair hanging over his face. In the non-musical sequences, where Anderson speaks to the musicians a little, Greenwood is barely a factor there either – and neither really is Shye Ben Tzur either. Anderson seems more interested in the music itself, and the supporting musicians, than the two supposed stars of the movie.

The music is wonderful – and does something that I often complain music documentaries never do, which is to allow the songs themselves to play out at length. Nothing is more frustrating to me than watching a documentary full of talking heads explaining why someone’s music is so great, and then only getting 15-20 snippets of the songs in question themselves. Anderson doesn’t care for the talking heads, doesn’t really want anyone explaining the music – he just lets its play out, and lets the audience decide its worth.

The whole movie does feel like something Anderson did as a lark – a project that he took on to see if he could. It’s most likely not precisely what he envisioned – apparently he had a lot of fancier equipment that got held up in Indian customs, so he had to shoot with whatever he had with him in carry on. Junun doesn’t change the way you’ll look at Anderson, nor does it redefine the music documentary as we know it. It’s just a really, really enjoyable way to spend 54 minutes – hearing some great music being performed. It’s gotten more attention than it otherwise would have considering Anderson’s name is attached – and that’s a good thing. Because the music deserves to be heard.

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