Streaming on MUBI: Junun

Andrew reviews the new Paul Thomas Anderson documentary released exclusively on MUBI, Junun

Paul Thomas Anderson 
and Jonny Greenwood
Every great director is entitled a lark or two in their illustrious respective careers.  Whether it be grand like Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress or a dirge like Oliver Stone's U-Turn, these are films representative of artists 'on vacation' as it were, allowing them some breathing room to have stream of consciousness fun for a change.  

Enter what is ostensibly the first lark and technically first documentary piece from celebrated event-driven auteur Paul Thomas Anderson: the Indian studio recording music documentary Junun.  After limited screenings in New York and Los Angeles, the 54 minute Junun debuted exclusively on MUBI which is more or less the streaming media equivalent of the ill-fated but legendary Z Channel.  Cited as the filmmaker's first experience working with the digital medium, Junun tags along with lead Radiohead guitarist/film-composer Jonny Greenwood to Mehrangarh Fort in Rajasthan, India to assist Isreali artist Shye Ben Tzur with the production of his new album.  Very much a clandestine release with little publicity beyond advertisements from MUBI and film enthusiast websites like the A.V. Club, Junun appeared online last Friday and will only be posted for a short time before being circulated out in lieu of another title per MUBI's policy, meaning your chances of seeing it are slim.  The big question on everyone's mind of course is how does Paul Thomas Anderson's filmmaking style lend itself to the documentary form?

Family portrait
The answer is surprisingly well even if in this case Anderson is something of a fish out of water.  Junun manages to achieve that rare feat of sinking its teeth into the terrain and culture with its many aerial vistas of the Indian landscape via remote controlled drones, some of which fly in front of the camera, and maintaining an outsider's distant perspective by refraining from subtitles and providing an explanation of any kind as to the events unfolding.  In other words, you enter the music world of Junun with as much knowledge as you take away from it, making the piece purely experiential.  The opening shot of a 360 degree pan around a band of musicians with the mercurial Greenwood in the background as his hair obscures his face is pure Paul Thomas Anderson.  A few nods to the director's own work are tossed in, notably including an episode where a musician is ordering repairs on his harmonium ala Punch-Drunk Love.  For the most part, however, Anderson keeps out of the way with his camera trained on the performers with the same reverent conviction Jonathan Demme had for David Byrne when he was filming Stop Making Sense.

"Hey you!  Shut up back there, 
we're trying to make a record!"
That said, Junun can be a little rough around the edges in a technical sense.  Much like Werner Herzog's My Son My Son, What Have Ye Done?, it is representative of an artist working with an unfamiliar medium.  Anderson and Herzog are unquestionably masters of film but when you provide them with brand new toys to play with such as the digital medium, chances are they're not going to be fully confident in their use of them.  

In any event, if Anderson's goal in this little side project was to shed some light on a yet to be discovered world of international musical camaraderie, then he brilliantly succeeded!  Those expecting what is technically the eighth offering in the distinguished auteur's oeuvre to be on par with There Will Be Blood or The Master, let it be said that Anderson wasn't aiming for those kind of heights to begin with and people should not get their hopes up.  As a B-roll jam session, a chance to see how Anderson fares with digital photography and lastly an eye opener on a style of music relatively new to Western audiences, I will concede Junun is indeed time well spent.  Nothing Earth shattering but a cool experience nevertheless.  


-Andrew Kotwicki

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