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NYFF ’15: ‘Junun’ is a brief look at genuine creativity

Junun
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
USA, 2015

A long-awaited film for Paul Thomas Anderson fans, Junun doesn’t come as a huge surprise as a next project from a director whose last film took on the immense task of adapting a Thomas Pynchon novel. Instead of jumping right back into narrative filmmaking, Anderson traveled to India and decided to make a documentary. A pretty relaxed one, at that. The film follows British musician Jonny Greenwood (guitarist from Radiohead) on his own time in India performing with a slew of local musicians. It’s not so much a documentary about Jonny Greenwood, though, as an exploration of music created by talented artists.

Jonny Greenwood is a small piece of this mosaic, often in the background, focused on just every so often. The star of Junun is the music. The film opens with all of the musicians sitting on the floor in a circle with silence surrounding them. The action starts when the music does. The energy of what they create is so infectious that it immediately hooks the viewer into what follows, which is mostly even more invigorating music. While the first song is playing, the main camera pans in a circle to show all of the players. It’s not a completely smooth pan; several times it suddenly stops and starts, and yet it’s not jarring. The camerawork’s technical imprecision feeds the authenticity of the documentary medium. It reminds the audience that what’s important is what the film shows, not who made it.

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Greenwood does feel involved in the group. Rather than standing out, he contributes equally with the other musicians. The performers are vital, as is the landscape. Anderson goes to great lengths to establish the setting, showing how the music and the culture of India work together. Shots from the streets of Rajasthan are spliced into the film, usually along with the music playing in the musicians’ jam sessions. Those clips and the few excerpts of band members talking to the camera enhance the synthesis that music can initiate. The musicians don’t reveal much about their personal lives, mostly just what’s happening in that moment. It’s all depicted in such an open and honest way. There are no celebrities or stars here, just extremely talented people from different backgrounds jamming and hanging out.

In the same sense that Greenwood is not the star, Junun doesn’t stand out as a Paul Thomas Anderson film. Like the musicians coming together to make one unique sound, the camerawork is divvied up between Anderson and a few other co-directors. Although he claims the director title, the film comes across as a joint effort by filmmakers who want more people to see this type of musical fusion. The shakiness of the camera when handheld is welcomingly genuine. It gives it all a sense of being seen and heard for the very first time, and a desire to hear more.

Junun is a fleeting look into creativity, with its 54-minute runtime a little too much of a tease. Perhaps it’s supposed to function as an introduction to this type of music and culture, leaving the audience itching to know and discover more on their own. On the surface, there’s not much to Junun beyond a bunch of musicians sitting around making music. After a longer look at it, it’s in fact an opportunity to learn more about what the world, culturally and artistically, has to offer. The film would have benefited from a deeper exploration instead of skimming the surface, but it’s still a worthwhile, mellow time filled with great tunes.

The 53rd New York Film Festival runs September 25 – October 11 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Visit the fest’s official website.

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