At about this time last week, subscribers to MUBI, the boutique film streaming service, got an email from Paul Thomas Anderson. His message was brief:
“So… here’s Junun — the movie we made of our time in India. Plug it into your speakers and play it loud — your neighbors need to hear it!! Paul.”
And there was a link, to the exclusive online premiere of Anderson’s new 54-minute documentary about the musical collaboration between Radiohead guitarist (and veteran PTA soundtracker) Jonny Greenwood, Israeli singer-composer Shye Ben Tzur, and a group of Indian musicians called the Rajasthan Express. The movie hangs around, trying sometimes successfully to seem more chill than awed, during their recording sessions inside the 15th-century Mehrangarh Fort, which overlooks the city of Jodphur in northwestern India.
The brevity of Anderson’s intro was bracing. Was that about humility — a gesture of just getting out of the way — or simple laziness? Surely it was intended to evoke The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s 1978 chronicle of the San Francisco “farewell concert appearance” of the Band, which begins with a title card, proclaiming, “THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD.”
So should Junun, yes. You won’t learn this from the film itself, which doesn’t really bother about exposition, but its title means “mania,” or “obsession,” particularly that of a romantic nature. It’s a good word to use for a general description of Qawwali, the stirring Sufi devotional music of which Ben Tzur has become a specialist and which exudes a deep artistic intensity that seems right up Anderson’s alley. With that in mind, the movie’s narrow focus and context-blindness might just be forgivable. Anderson records a fusion of musical cultures without parsing its nuances, preferring instead a luxuriant soak in the melting pot. The result is soul-swelling, uncalculated rapture.
At the same time, the no-fuss nature of Junun seems like a matter of refreshment for its director. This is a welcome respite from Anderson the preening showman — from the grandiose striving of There Will Be Blood, The Master, or Inherent Vice. For its part, Junun is as cinematically dithering as it is musically focused. If Anderson’s occasional use of a drone-mounted camera in a project about drone-intensive music seems a bit on the nose, well, you can always close your eyes for a while and just listen.
It’s probably no coincidence that shortly after Anderson’s email announcing the online premiere, MUBI’s servers crashed. People all over the world want to check this out, and for good reason. Good thing the Roxie has plans to screen Junun this Sunday afternoon. Besides, our speakers only go so loud anyway.