Review: Paul Thomas Anderson and Jonny Greenwood Sink Into the Beautiful Background in ‘Junun’ Documentary
From the outside, Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film Junun seems like much-deserved repayment of a favor owed to Jonny Greenwood. For the last eight years, the Radiohead guitarist has used much of his extracurricular time away from his main act (and work with Steve Reich) to create loping, elliptical scores for Anderson’s fuzzy films. Starting with the true grit of There Will Be Blood’s instrumentals (which Greenwood started performing live this year) and continuing through 2014’s Inherent Vice (to which he even donated an unreleased Radiohead track) the six-stringer-cum-composer has expended much of his creative energies crafting effluvial pieces that spiral and shudder in the fractal-like patterns of a shattered windshield.
Still, respected as those scores may be, Greenwood’s composing is relegated solely to the background of these shaggy-dog detective stories and pitch-black oil dramas, closer to the spotlight than, say, foley work, but subtle and unassuming by their very design. They’re not star-making performances (though they should be), but Greenwood’s other appearances on celluloid — and magnetic tape — suggest that he’s probably okay with being a bit player. For all their frontman’s skittering energy, Radiohead’s beauty has always been in the way their jagged parts arrange into a satisfyingly smooth façade. And he’s certainly content to sulk in the distance in the abstract OK Computer tour doc Meeting People Is Easy.
A starring role for the background man is long overdue, and Junun seems like it should be that, even if such an endeavor is a strange one for the private musician. Anderson followed Greenwood to India, where the guitarist met up with like-minded Israeli composer/guitarist Shye Ben Tzur, longtime producer Nigel Godrich, and a group of local qawwali musicians called the Rajasthan Express to make a record that bears the same title as the film. But neither the resulting music nor the film that documents its making is the sort of revealing Greenwood profile you might expect Anderson to be capable of. In a lot of ways, it’s the most revealing depiction of him yet, if only because it confirms the image of the mop-haired musician as a democratic worker. Even on what’s ostensibly a solo album or a documentary about his latest work, he’s more than willing to play as just a part of the whole — let the bigger picture unfold as it may.
A few minutes into Junun, when surveying the Indian fort that Greenwood and Ben Tzur chose as their recording location, Godrich tells his assistants to clear some space: “There’s going to be a lot of people in here.” And to his credit, Anderson uses the film’s 54 minutes to pay fairly equal attention to each. Greenwood’s indisputably the biggest name to Western audiences, and the camera does often settle on his pensive gaze during long instrumentals, but even those moments serve to de-emphasize his role as a drive of the project.
The film begins with footage of the whole crew (all 17 of the musicians involved in the project) sitting in a circle and launching into the horn-laden mantras of “Julus,” with a camera in the center spinning around and fixating on each musician as they launch into their respective interwoven parts on trumpet, tuba, trombone, and less common instruments like the khartal, dholak, Bhapang, and Nagara (each of which are typical of qawwali percussion). It’s pretty impressive to watch a group of musicians this large interacting in unison — which you’ll know if you’ve ever spent time watching bows rise and fall at an orchestra — and it’s dizzying and disorienting in Anderson’s hands as he spins the camera for several rapid rotations. It’s a moment that mirrors general approach throughout the whole film, find an energy that matches the music’s giddy pace and underscore the fact that there’s a whole crew of people working here — a group beyond Greenwood, and even beyond Ben Tzur, who gets first billing on the resulting record.
Through power outages and prayers, Anderson depicts the recording process fairly straightforwardly, and given the egos (or lack thereof) at play, that largely makes for a drama-free hour of entertainment, which can result in some pacing issues, even at its brief runtime. When one of the musicians is lying supine on the floor bemoaning the fact that they can’t record because the fort has lost power, you can’t help but feel similarly. Maybe the mundane problems of making a record aren’t actually all that interesting when you take the drugs and the interpersonal hatred out of the picture.
Anderson has a few tricks up his sleeve for these slower moments though, deploying a drone camera to take flowing aerial shots of the whole compound, or to rocket across a room and out the window when a particularly ecstatic composition calls for it. There’s a whole tradition of verité filmmaking that Anderson’s engaged with, and though it’d largely be relegated to a bonus DVD in the case of something like Junun — the economy and democracy of which is pretty much unparalleled — he manages to justify its existence. It’s neither a dive into the depths of Greenwood’s soul, nor a particularly insightful look into his collaborators’ way of working, but its casually diaristic lens is fitting for the looseness of the proceedings. Neither Greenwood nor Anderson is the type to goof off, but this is as close as either has come to letting some of the tension out, and allowing others to take the lead. And it’s always endearing to watch a master cede the spotlight.