Feature film

Junun Review: The Moment Things Come Together

Monday, November 23, 2015 Rob Samuelson


Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Featuring: Jonny Greenwood, Nigel Godrich, Ehtisham Khan Ajmeri, Gufran Ali
Rating: Four stars out of five.
Available on iTunes now.

Some of the most evocative images created by filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson have involved the magic hour, the two times of day right when the sun is on the horizon, right at dawn and at dusk. Adam Sandler's Barry Egan receives his busted harmonium as the sun rises in Punch Drunk Love. Freddie Quell picks cabbages all day until the descending sun indicates it's time for him to drink his post-traumatic stress away in the early section of The Master, and his climactic motorcycle trip at the end features a setting sun, as well. It is a time that is fleeting – it may only last for a few minutes. Filmmakers must be confident in their own abilities, their setups, their performers, and their crew members in order to capture something, anything, worth watching while the moments slip away. It is a search for the tipping point toward rightness, or even perfection, in the human eye's ability to perceive beauty.

It is about the moment when the edges of something are smoothed out and grace can take over. It is something the musicians at the center of Anderson's new documentary, Junun, understand well. They are obsessed with reaching a different kind of magic hour, one more pertinent to the act of crafting a song. That is why Anderson's camera attempts to introduce each new song of the collaboration album between Radiohead guitarist – and frequent Anderson feature film composer – Jonny Greenwood and a slew of India's top musicians at the turning point from a bunch of clanking noise to a melded, layered soundscape.

There is little frustration in the world of Junun, at least between the collaborators. They groan at the regular loss of power courtesy of a shaky electrical grid in the town where they are working, meaning they cannot record or even use things like electric guitars for long stretches of time. But they sit, both relaxed and coiled at the same time. They seem to enjoy each other's company, regardless of any language barriers, and they are always ready to get back to work; they're itching to do so especially when the real-world circumstances prevent them the freedom to do so.

Of course, before the cameras rolled, there were probably plenty of disagreements about how to piece together each song on the album, which shares the film's title. But the strife of putting multiple people in a room to reach a consensus is not what interests Anderson as he sits with his digital cameras and a drone – with both serving as firsts in a career that has been film-only to date – in the middle of these multi-instrumentalists huddled in a circle. He finds them fine tuning their ideas, with a series of head nods and short affirmations or corrections, all while the other players around them build a groove. It's hypnotic and relaxing to see and hear this process, and Anderson does little but perform 360-degree turns to check on each section's contributions.

Anderson's fly-on-the-wall approach would perhaps be seen as disengaged if Junun were about any other subject, but he wisely chooses to let the music and mostly nonverbal interactions tell the story. There's a looseness to the camerawork that is jarring coming from a man whose previous films, especially since 2007's There Will Be Blood, have put him on a path toward Stanley Kubrick levels of calculated control over everything in the frame. There is a moment where Anderson himself can be seen running past the screen as a musical take reaches a “Eureka” crescendo. He picks up the camera and shakily runs closer toward the group, which is operating on several levels of satisfaction with the song, a way of saying, “We got it,” without verbalizing anything.

And in that moment, Junun's thesis becomes clear. It gets its magic hour shot. The director, performers, and crew have said what they wanted to say, and they are content. And all is right.

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