Paul Thomas Anderson's brilliant Junun "just happened", according to one of the subjects in the documentary. Junun captures the making of a record by Anderson's frequent music collaborator, Radiohead lead guitarist and keyboard player Jonny Greenwood, and composer Shye Ben Tzur. The music was created in collaboration with members of a Rajasthani brass band, qawwals and local singers.
Tzur has had a longstanding interest in Indian music. His debut album Heeyam (Supreme Love, 2003) was recorded in Israel, India and America. Greenwood came upon Tzur's work during a trip to the Negev desert in Israel, when he heard a band playing a song written by Tzur. Greenwood sought out Tzur, who bases his music on devotional Sufi poetry sung by Indian singers in Hebrew, Hindi and Urdu. The duo performed live at Southbank's Alchemy Festival last year. Junun is a follow-up to that engagement.
The 54-minute film opens with a view from the outside of the room where the musicians are holed up. The camera (drones were also used on the shoot) then circles inside, where the musicians are sitting in a circle on the floor and connecting over music from various parts of the world. No introductions are given and no one talks to the camera. Almost immediately, drums roll, horns boom and the room is filled with immersive music. A trance-like state takes over the viewer who joins in as if on cue.
Once Anderson is able to form this jugalbandi between the musicians and the audience, he goes on to make a film that successfully uses visuals to convey the music.
In an exceptional sequence, the rising tempo inside the room is intercut with shots of a man on the roof feeding raw meat to a flock of frenzied birds. Tzur explains the film's title. The ‘heat’ and the garam music, he says, happens when artists are passionately in pursuit.
Perched on a picturesque location, the musicians have little interaction with the outside world. Anderson follows them to repair a harmonium and purchase an electronic keyboard, looking for ways in which ancient and the modern forms of music blend into each other. Otherwise, the 30-member crew look quite content when they have to relax in the fort on account of a power shortage. There is no drama, no rivalry, no hijinks.
How do the musicians do it? The music does all – it is hypnotic and spiritual and the result of musicians in love with their instruments. A player lovingly details how the stringed kamaicha is made of mango wood and goat leather in broken English, implying, as does the documentary itself, that music is above everything.
The West has a long tradition of music documentaries and Junun sits well within that. It is unlikely, though, that Junun will do for Indian music what Wim Wenders's Buena Vista Social Club (1999) did for Cuba simply because of the inaccessibility of the sound. The exotic hybridity is in equal parts enchanting and isolated from world music, where it is still charting choppy waters.