Making a solid first foray into nonfiction terrain with “Junun,” Paul Thomas Anderson tags along with his frequent soundtrack collaborator and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood to Rajasthan in northwest India, where the British rocker aims to make an album with a host of international artists. Though nominally following in the footsteps of the Beatles, who famously trained at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1968, Greenwood takes a far more background role throughout his journey, which finds the the “There Will Be Blood” director painting an immersive portrait of harmonious dialogue between not only East and West, but also man and nature, the past the present.
At a brief 54 minutes, it’s a curiosity apt to primarily appeal to Anderson completists, premiering exclusively on MUBI, an online streaming platform for world cinema, beginning on Oct. 9. Its title roughly translated to mean “madness of love,” “Junun” sets its stage simply, with a single title card explaining Greenwood’s trip to the 15th-century Mehrangarh Fort (with the blessing of the Maharaja of Jodhpur) in order to work on the titular two-disc LP.
From there, Anderson’s camera assumes an intimate position first outside, and then inside, the circle formed by Greenwood and his fellow musicians as they sit on the floor of a giant room recording their varied, passionate, alternately joyful and sorrowful songs. Those tracks aren’t denoted by title, just as Greenwood’s producer Nigel Godrich, Israeli composer and singer Shye Ben Tzur, and India’s “Rajasthan Express” members aren’t identified by name until the closing credits. The effect of that strategy is to situate viewers within a very particular creative space that feels at once hermetic, and yet inherently in sync with the larger world surrounding it.
That accord between the interior and the exterior is conveyed via numerous shots which commence alongside drummers and singers and then rapidly fly out Mehrangarh Fort’s windows, suggesting a kinship between the eclectic music and the region from which it draws life — and also, as when electricity shortages lead to recording stoppages, its vibrant power. There’s a trancelike energy to the tunes crafted during these sessions, such that at one point, a player of the kamaicha (a stringed instrument made from goat leather and mango wood) grows heavy-lidded as if semi-hypnotized by his own performance.
With no contextual onscreen information provided, and interview and conversational dialogue kept to a bare minimum, “Junun” functions as an experiential documentary, one in which all meaning and emotion is derived from being wholly submerged in the music on display. Consequently, Greenwood himself remains a peripheral figure, spied over shoulders or amidst his fellow musicians as merely one link in a chain of talented people coming together to beget something unique from their disparate skills.
Favoring long, unbroken takes that allow the rhythmic, full-bodied songs to breathe as they ebb and flow from beginning to end, Anderson’s aesthetics unobtrusively capture the magic of Greenwood and company’s global partnership. It’s a reverent tribute, and one that articulates its underlying themes in subtle, piercing snapshots. Thus, the marriage between India’s ancient and contemporary musical traditions is revealed through quick trips beyond the fort’s borders to spy a trumpeter purchasing an electronic keyboard at a thrift shop and a harmonium player getting his antiquated instrument repaired by a local craftsman. Likewise, the ties that bind “Junun’s” music to both its environment and history are evoked in a brief, early interlude (set to one of the band’s compositions) involving a man on the fort’s rooftops feeding hawks in the same manner as his ancestors — a sequence that culminates with a rapturous aerial shot that marks Anderson as the unseen final member of his film’s masterful, melodious artistic collective.