Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film Junun is an unexpected move for the director only if you think of him, as it seems many do after the one-two punch of his There Will Be Blood and The Master, as a high cinematic formalist meditating on grand American themes. Junun is a messy, unpretentious movie, and it has nothing to do with America. Shot at Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, the film is a documentary about the making of a new album by Shye Ben Tzur and Jonny Greenwood. (The album, also titled Junun, comes out next month, so this can fairly be described as a promotional film.) Ben Tzur, an Israeli composer who studied classical music in India for years, writes music influenced by the Sufi devotional songs called Qawwali, best known to Western audiences via the records of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. His latest project is a collaboration with Radiohead guitarist Greenwood, who has written the score for Anderson’s last three films and who presumably got him involved.
Junun begins with a shot of a group of musicians—Ben Tzur, Greenwood, and several Indian brass players and drummers—sitting on the floor in front of microphones in a beautiful room, silently waiting. A (rare) caption informs us that the scene was shot during the afternoon call to prayer: hence the waiting. The camera executes a jerky pan around the room, capturing people yawning, chatting, and staring into space as well as praying. Finally they break into song, starting with the drummers and soon followed by the brass, accompanied by Tzur on electric guitar and Greenwood on bass.
The camera pans again, the mark of the human hand apparent in the awkwardness of its movement. Whoever is operating the camera (it may be Anderson himself; he’s one of six cinematographers credited) is sitting right in the center of the circle of musicians, capturing what is there to be captured, while also seeming hesitant to disturb or distract anyone. (Filmmakers know all about accidentally ruining takes.) At the end of the song, as the players wait for their final notes to decay, the title of the film is superimposed on the screen in giant letters: a reminder that this scene hasn’t simply been filmed; it’s been directed.
That scene sets the tone for the rest of Junun, which unobtrusively documents the recording of the album with occasional interludes to explore the grounds of the Mehrangarh Fort and a nearby town. Anderson, who’s never made a nonfiction film before, shows a flair for incidental detail: a pigeon perched on a light fixture; a caretaker flinging meat off the roof of the fort to circling hawks; shoes lined up haphazardly outside a room where recording is in progress. There are no formal interviews (and almost no spoken words), just a few casual chats with musicians during their moments of downtime. A big, bald, mustachioed fellow named Nathu Lal Solanki lies supine on the floor. Anderson asks him what’s happening. “India has failed,” Nathu jokes. “Like we say always: Everything is possible in India. No toilet, no shower, but full power, 24 hour. Today is no power. The electric is not here. We are waiting for the electric.” But, he adds, with a twinkle in his eye, “We have energy, we have full power relaxing.”
As in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (also shot in India), there’s a travelogue quality to Junun, particularly when it ventures outside the fort and into town, that could be a bit embarrassing if it were overdone. But Anderson doesn’t seem to be trying to capture the essence of India in these (very brief) sequences so much as make a concession to the fact—which anyone who’s ever recorded an album can confirm—that you need to get out of the studio and into the fresh air sometimes. Similarly, a few arresting moments of aerial footage, shot using a drone, seem like an excuse to try out a new toy more than anything. (I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some drone shots pop up in Anderson’s next feature.)
Junun will disappoint people expecting the next fully realized P.T. Anderson movie (which can’t be very many people, given that it appeared very suddenly, as these things go, and beyond a few festival screenings is available only on MUBI, an online streaming service for independent cinema). The film is slight, and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Some parts of it could arguably have been produced by anyone, though those who are schooled in Andersonology will surely discover his signature in countless places. But it is, on its own humble terms, a very good movie, and one that contributes something to the cinematic subgenre of the music documentary.
When Anderson was first coming up, the directors he mentioned as role models and influences weren’t heady cine-philosophes like Stanley Kubrick and Terence Malick but people like Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme. Scorsese and Demme, of course, are well known for their music documentaries: Scorsese worked (as an editor) on Woodstock, codified the conventions of the modern concert film with his 1978 documentary The Last Waltz, and has more recently directed a series of historically minded films on the blues, Bob Dylan, and George Harrison. Demme, for his part, directed 1984’s Stop Making Sense, arguably the best concert movie ever made, and has followed it up with well-regarded films built around Neil Young and Robyn Hitchcock.
All of those are films about performance, though: Junun is a film about recording, a much rarer subject for a major director to take on, in part because it’s less inherently dramatic. In a live setting, musicians act like actors, playing to an audience and turning themselves into characters: all an intelligent filmmaker has to do, much of the time, is put the camera in the right place and let the performance work its magic. But in a recording session, most musicians tend to be very focused, concentrating all of their attention on their playing and none on the people who might happen to observe it. Junun shows this concentration, in a way that is often compelling but never dramatic, per se. Its closest cousin may be One Plus One, Jean-Luc Godard’s infamous portrait of the Rolling Stones’ 1968 rehearsal and recording sessions for the song “Sympathy for the Devil.” But where Godard teases Stones fans by giving them fragments of the same track over and over, Anderson lets complete performances play out (and then some), emphasizing the intense commitment of the musicians to their work.
Though it’s obviously an anomaly in his filmography, Junun also represents, in a certain way, a return to form. Anderson’s first four movies were made very quickly, in the space of a mere seven years, and each built on ideas and techniques that had been tried (sometimes unsuccessfully) in the last. After the bizarre but charming romantic comedy Punch Drunk Love in 2002, Anderson got serious, and seemed more intent on crafting bona fide masterpieces. He also slowed down considerably: There Will Be Blood took five years to come out, and The Master appeared after another five-year interval. These films deserve all of the accolades they’ve received, but they also have a very different quality than Anderson’s early, scrappier work. It’s not quite right to say that they’re straining to be great; there are still plenty of the offbeat, unforced moments that distinguish his early output. But they are somber, sober, a little labored over.
During this period—before the return to freewheeling, anarchic form that was last year’s Inherent Vice—I worried that Anderson was becoming the new Stanley Kubrick. I’m not knocking Kubrick, of course: you’d have to be a real philistine (or Pauline Kael) not to appreciate his achievement. But a large part of the young Anderson’s appeal, for me, was the way he had seemed to channel the manic productivity of 60s and 70s filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Altman, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, all of whom averaged a movie a year (or more) at their peak. Not all of their films were great, of course—at that rate, how could they be?—but the very pace of invention was exhilarating, and you never quite knew what you were going to get. It’s a matter of taste, of course, but I prefer that unpredictable, dynamic Anderson to the austere auteur of There Will Be Blood and The Master, no matter how good those films are.
It’s anybody’s guess what Anderson will do next; there have been rumors of another Pynchon adaptation, and he is apparently set to write (and perhaps direct) a live-action Pinocchio film for Robert Downey, Jr. Hollywood being what it is, neither of these things might happen. (Personally I’d be okay with Pinocchio not happening; I don’t see why Anderson’s Altman fixation has to extend to having his own Popeye.) My hope is that, whatever Anderson’s next project may be, it arrives soon: there’s plenty in Junun that cries out for further exploration, and five years is too long to wait.