New York 2015 Review: The Tranquil Insanity of JUNUN
By no means is this meant to imply that ruminating on PTA films isn't a source of great cinematic joy, as few things are more fascinating and inevitably rewarding than watching and rewatching the PTA narrative puzzle. Rather that in Anderson's first documentary, Junun, a light on its feet document of a recording session in Rajasthan, India, led by Israel's Shye Ben Tzur, featuring Jonny Greenwood and a 20-piece powerhouse Indian band called The Rajasthan Express, audiences are treated to another, more observant side of the PTA aesthetic.
Although upwards of five cameras were utilized simultaneously during the Junun sessions, one can still feel the silent presence of the documentary's director watching the proceedings with an eye that can't help but translate itself cinematically. From the first shot - an unfathomably calculated 360 degree pan around the musician circle - it's clear that any preconceived notions of what music documentaries tend to look like are useless. There isn't a great deal of talking and when speech does occur, there are far better things to discuss than the music itself. Song after song, the blasts of music do a far better job of speaking for themselves than any commentary could. The sudden silences that follow each symphony's final note are pregnant with a lingering energy that trails off into a space where words fail.
Though Junun will be classified as a music documentary, it also begs a more specific subcategory that has room for films like Ron Fricke's Baraka or D.A. Pennebaker's Daybreak Express. But in speaking of music documentaries, the one that comes to Anderson's mind as loose inspiration is Jazz On A Summer's Day, a film that allows the as described performance to unfold without aesthetic interference. Likewise, in the filming of Junun, PT acts as a fly on an epic wall with enough wisdom to recognize it's a wall far bigger than his or anyone's ego. When PT does pipe up to voice the very infrequent question, it comes from a place of genuine cultural curiosity and wonder. Fittingly, the only person involved in the project more renowned than Anderson in North America is Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood. Yet Greenwood is equally, if not more, unassuming in his involvement. Both seem respectfully in awe of the company they've found themselves keeping as well as the surroundings they inhabit.
During the three-week-long sessions, when the musicians aren't actively engaged in their sonic insanity - usually when the electricity is out - they seemingly divide their time between sleeping on floors or corners, feeding the birds they share their space with, and the odd trip into town for tasks like harmonium tuning (settle down Punch Drunk fans). All of this is crucially represented by the film's musical sense of cross-cut editing , which brings out the journey cultural rhythm by interpreting its pulse. Sometimes the music is cacophonous, other times it's tranquil, but it is always shot with a raw sense of grace. Sometimes the camera floats right out the window and glides among the birds.
More often than not, both the shot and tone are static while the performance demands our undivided attention. In these moments especially, the cultural and musical melding contained within the Junun project presents itself as an undeniably special entity, worthy of celebration. Even Greenwood spends a great deal of the film marveling at the music coming from this beautiful room. Fortunately, his and Anderson's sense of wonder is tangibly apparent on the screen. As outsiders, PT and Greenwood have clearly experienced a perspective shifting odyssey. Thanks to Junun, so too can you.