Song of India
By Jackson Arn
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, U.S., available on iTunes
It must have taken equal parts arrogance, ambition, and whimsy for Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood, and the Rajasthan Express to choose the studio where they recorded their new album, Junun. The Mehrangarh Fortress defended Jodhpur, India, from roaming invaders for nearly 400 yearsâ€”as recently as the 1940s, it was still being used to keep Indians in and foreigners out. That it is also a masterpiece of architecture, sculpture, paneling, and engraving should make the building as intimidating to the would-be artist as to the potential invader: its lapis mosaics and stunning vistas dare one to make something of equal beauty. Most artists wouldnâ€™t dare respond to such a challenge. But of course, the musicians who collaborated on Junun arenâ€™t like most artists. Shye Ben Tzur specializes in Qawwali, a genre of Sufi devotional music that preceded the building of the Mehrangarh by at least two centuries. He writes music and poetry in Hindi, English, Hebrew, and Urdu, and collaborates with guitarists from Spain, India, the United States, and England. The Rajasthan Express comprises two dozen virtuosi on brass, harmonium, and drums (both the short, low-toned tabla and the longer, more melodious dholak). Jonny Greenwood is Jonny Greenwood. For onceâ€”thankfullyâ€”the Mehrangarh failed to keep the roaming intruders out.
The epic circumstances of Junun the albumâ€™s production make for a puzzling contrast with Junun the movie, P.T. Andersonâ€™s new documentary. At least on paper, Andersonâ€™s film, about the making of the album, qualifies as minor in nearly every way: its 54-minute length; its lack of a national theatrical release; its sudden announcement, relatively free from fanfare, less than a year after Andersonâ€™s Inherent Vice. And yet Junun is in other ways a major event. Itâ€™s Andersonâ€™s first documentary feature; his first foray into digital photography; and his boldest celebration of music, always one of the most pleasurable aspects of his oeuvre. In the engrossing opening scene, which also functions as its own discrete short film, the musicians gather around an unseen figure, possibly Anderson himself (heâ€™s one of four camera operators listed in the credits). As they begin to play, the camera pans jerkily around the circle, capturing each performer in mid-tap, pluck, chant, or clap. Nearly half of those assembled are siblings: Nathu and Narsi Lal Solanki on percussion, Aamir and Soheb Bhiyani on brass, Dara and Asin Khan on strings. As the song ends, the drums echo for a few seconds, as if to accompany the cameraâ€™s sudden, dizzying halt.
Whoâ€™s in charge here? Jonny Greenwood, whose name sits atop every ad for Junun, spends much of the documentary skulking in the background, looking for all the world like one of the hippies from Inherent Vice. Greenwoodâ€™s scores for that film and Andersonâ€™s two preceding works, The Master and There Will Be Blood, recall the avant-garde compositions of his idol, Krzysztof Penderecki, most explicitly his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. Yet such musical influences donâ€™t find much of a place within Jununâ€™s Qawwali compositions; while it was Greenwood who convinced Anderson to bring a camera to Jodhpur in early 2015, heâ€™s an ensemble player here, not a primary author. Rather than compensate for Greenwoodâ€™s near-absence with additional information about Ben Tzur and the Rajasthan Express, Anderson restricts our access to the musiciansâ€™ names (not revealed until the final minutes of the film) and conversations (rarely subtitled). Nor is he particularly interested in the nuts and bolts of their creative processesâ€”not just the performance of a great track, in other words, but also the tuning, the editing, and the dozens of maddening takes sometimes required to record one. At times, the gambit pays off handsomely; itâ€™s no coincidence, for instance, that the (literal) high point of Jununâ€”on par, at least in my mind, with the burning derrick scene from There Will Be Bloodâ€”showcases Ben Tzur, Greenwood, and the Rajasthan Expressâ€™s music but barely shows them onscreen. Their song, â€śRoked,â€ť combines traditional Qawwali instruments with a club beat, courtesy of Greenwoodâ€™s MacBook Pro, and some English lyrics, including that most ubiquitous of U.S. exports, the word â€śokay.â€ť Instead of lingering inside the fortress, Anderson pokes his head outside, where he finds a young man feeding raw meat to a swarm of wild birds. What begins as a celebration of the musiciansâ€™ artistry ends as a way to spotlight Andersonâ€™s, weaving together eye-level images of birds scooping up meat and drone shots that capture the swarm from high aboveâ€”a birdâ€™s eye view of birds.
The presence of that drone, glimpsed for only a few seconds, casts a shadow over Junun, reminding us that the documentary takes place in an era of rampant corporate and military imperialism; the dark cousins of the cultural mixing that birthed the album and the film. This grim thoughtâ€”still grimmer when one considers all the cameos drones have made in recent American moviesâ€”clouds the utopianism of the musiciansâ€™ project, suggesting one civilization swallowing another whole instead of blending with it. (Look at an ad for the documentary and itâ€™s easy enough to see which civilization is which.) Curiously, Junun raises these very charges of imperialism and cultural appropriation in the act of trying to account for them. In one of only a small handful of conversations in the film about musical history, Shye Ben Tzur explains that the semantic meaning of Qawwali chants, delivered mostly in tenth-century Urdu and Punjabi, are often as foreign to Indian vocalists as they are to Jonny Greenwood. Later, he claims to embrace all religions, including Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Sufism, equally. In both of these exchanges, Junun clears moral turf for the artistic collaborations it documents, a deliberate and uneasy task that clashes with the improvisational feel of the collaborations themselves. Thereâ€™s no need to doubt Ben Tzurâ€™s sincerity for a second. And yet his two observations show Junun compensating for its own orientalist guilt, all the more obviously since theyâ€™re among the only subtitled remarks in the film. (â€śJunun,â€ť by the way, is a Hindi word meaning passion, desire, or love, with connotations of obsession or insanity.)
Andersonâ€™s last three features confronted the same hefty subject: how a big cultural movement of Americaâ€™s recent past (early 20th-century evangelism, postÂâ€“World War II self-help, the 1960s counterculture) struggled to stay afloat in a rapidly changing world. Masterful as all three of these films were, itâ€™s refreshing to see the director getting out of the country and experimenting with new forms and techniques, conspicuously free from the pressure of making another masterpiece. In a different sense, Andersonâ€™s latest film is another study of cultures in transition, even if some of its greatest insights on the matter arrive via brief shots of drones and laptops instead of monologues and visual set pieces. It is also, simply, the site of some phenomenal music. That these two qualities of Junun donâ€™t necessarily complement one another might suggestâ€”especially in light of Andersonâ€™s filmographyâ€”that itâ€™s much harder to talk about the present than the past.