'Junun': NYFF Review

Courtesy of New York Film Festival
Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood and the Rajasthan Express

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Paul Thomas Anderson follows frequent music collaborator Jonny Greenwood to Jodhpur, India, to record an album with Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur.

There's a beautiful, multi-tiered exchange among artists happening in Junun. Jonny Greenwood's unconventional dramatic scores have enriched the last three features by Paul Thomas Anderson, and the director now reciprocates by bringing along his camera to document the unique recording adventure this past spring of an album of devotional music — alternately plaintive and ecstatic, trancelike and propulsive, invariably stirring — on which the Radiohead guitarist collaborates with Israeli composer and singer Shye Ben Tzur, producer Nigel Godrich and a populous band of Indian musicians and vocalists dubbed the Rajasthan Express.

Clocking in at just under an hour, the digitally shot documentary follows its New York Film Festival premiere with an exclusive month-long window on global streaming platform Mubi.com, starting on Oct. 9. It should also prove a popular choice in festival music sidebars as well as a captivating extra to go with the two-disc album of the same name, due Nov. 13 from Nonesuch Records.

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In addition to Greenwood's highly original scores for There Will Be Blood, The Master and Inherent Vice, which frequently play against tone to arresting effect, Anderson's collaborations with avant-garde indie folk artist Joanna Newsom offer further evidence that he's drawn to wide-ranging musical influences. That's certainly the case with this nonpareil project, shot in the 15th century Mehrangarh Fort in the northwest Indian state of Rajasthan where the three weeks of recording took place.

On the surface, Greenwood's involvement might summon comparisons with the immersion into Indian culture, mysticism and musicianship of another guitarist from an iconic English band, George Harrison. But this occasion seems purely a coming-together of mutually curious world musicians, its spiritual dimensions confined to an opening call to prayer and to the music itself. Greenwood is actually an almost recessive figure in the film, glimpsed among the other players in his customary performance mode, with head dipped over his guitar, keyboard or laptop, eyes often shielded by a sideswept curtain of hair.

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Nor could Ben Tzur really be considered the film's chief focus, despite being responsible for its driving wall-to-wall music. Both Anderson's film (which carries no director credit) and the project it documents show a democratic inclusiveness toward all the creative contributors. That's illustrated in a slow pan around the circle of musicians during the mighty build of the opening song, "Julus," as drummers are joined by other dynamic percussionists, followed by the virtuoso trumpet of Aamir Bhiyani and the rest of the killer brass section. Even ace producer Godrich is shown to be just one of the crew in amusing shots of him using a microphone stand to shoo out a persistent pigeon.

Contextual information and dialogue are kept to a minimum, although in stunning footage we watch a young man who feeds meat to hawks that circle the fort's towers each day, continuing a family tradition that stretches back generations. The same goes for a musician who plays a kamaicha, a traditional bowed instrument made of mango wood and goatskin. A snippet of dialogue also reveals that given the vast number of distinct Indian languages, it's by no means unusual for vocalists to be singing in Hebrew, a language they don't speak. (They also sing in Hindi and Urdu.)

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Anderson's camera accompanies a harmonium player into the busy streets of Jodphur to have his instrument tuned, and later follows players as they purchase new clothes and turbans for a Rajasthan music festival under the patronage of the Maharaja. But notwithstanding the many descriptive glimpses of the densely populated city sprawling beneath the ancient fort's hilltop perch, the film is all about the music-making.

Anderson shares shooting duties with Godrich and three other operators, and there's something distinctly joyous and celebratory about the way the camera flies in and out of the ornate architectural structure to connect the music to the people, places and spaces surrounding the fort. Glimpses of musicians catching a few winks during breaks or power outages add to the flavorful observation. Andy Jurgensen's editing echoes the changeable rhythms of Ben Tzur's spectacular, surging music in a transporting film that places us right there in the room, living and breathing a singular artistic experience. Trying to remain still in your seat is futile.

Production company: Ghoulardi Film Company
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Directors of photography: Paul Thomas Anderson, Nigel Godrich, Sharona Katan, Ian Patrick, Arne Warmington
Music: Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood and the Rajasthan Express
Editor: Andy Jurgensen
Sales: CAA

No rating, 54 minutes.

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