The Drive-In Theater: Junun

The Drive-In Theater returns with an examination of the Junun Projects- the Paul Anderson documentary based on the Jonny Greenwood album.
By    April 25, 2016

last waltz

Will Schube once went through processing with Lancaster Dodd.

It’s easy to distract yourself from Junun. The collaborative album between Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood, and the Rajasthan Express is surrounded by non-musical talking points. First of all, the album has a Radiohead name attached to it, and any combination of the words “Radio” and “head” will get swallowed whole by the world’s pre-eminent Radiobros. Album announcements from unchecked sources break the internet. That’s just how it works. Meanwhile Thommy boy is somewhere overcast, chuckling, and weeping.

Secondly, this concept is a tired trope. Famous musician travels to faraway land, steals musical identity of land’s inhabitants, returns, garners acclaim. But this isn’t a Graceland situation. Greenwood cedes much control to Ben Tzur, a phenomenally talented Israeli composer currently living in India. This is a by the book, Merriam-Webster abiding, capital C-Collaboration. 

Junun feels like a special treat because we get a sense of Greenwood outside of Radiohead, untethered from the behemoth. Greenwood is an intensely quiet, private man so any insight into his creative process is immensely valuable. Have you ever seen his face not covered by his strategically placed hair? Luckily, Greenwood decided to document the recording process through the eyes of our greatest living director, Paul Thomas Anderson (I would do unmentionable things to form the final third of that friend group). And thus distractor number three is posed: Junun is also a documentary. 

Junun the documentary is unassuming and non-invasive. At just under an hour, the film is slight and doesn’t aspire to much. As a diehard PTA fan, I was more excited for the documentary than the CD release, but the two compliment each other immensely well, and the album is the more immersive piece of art. I’m surprised PTA’s Junun isn’t two-and-a-half hours long and ends in an omnipotent singalong or a cascade of Biblical frogs. 

The documentary is less interested in being a music film than it is in observing a particular artistic process during a moment in time; PTA just happens to be filming a bunch of amazing musicians making a great album. There are very few talking head interviews and the film is shot sloppily and presented playfully—which is a surprisingly nice change of pace from Anderson’s usual precision. PTA devotees will likely be disappointed by the brief document, but music lovers should leave theaters or laptop sessions thrilled. 

Ben Tzur’s influence hangs over the album far more than Greenwood’s, although Jonny G’s snaking guitar lines define a few of the album’s strongest cuts. Disc 1 is the weaker of the two, as the second half jumps out of the gate with the infectious “Julus.” “Allah Elohim” is a gorgeous lament that boasts the aforementioned Greenwood trademark, while album opener “Junun” uses repetition and a swaggering rhythm section to help create music’s most precious product: unbridled joy.

Shirking away from the easy suspects, PTA says his biggest point of inspiration while concocting Junun’s pace and style was the wonderful Jazz on a Summer’s Day. While PTA didn’t travel with nice enough equipment to capture the sort of stunning colors that Summer’s Day showcases, the film’s laid-back, meditative pace is reflective of the 1959 concert film.

The film also recalls Jean-Luc Godard’s One Plus One (more commonly known as Sympathy for the Devil). That film, like Anderson’s, observes a specific creative process: In Godard’s film he captures the development of the Stones recording “Sympathy for the Devil.” The two share modest aspirations, although Godard does spend a third of his film exploring a half-baked metaphor consisting of Black Panthers milling about a junkyard. It’s as nonsensical as it sounds, but he’s French and an auteur so shut the hell up and pretend you understand it. Junun never takes itself this seriously or attempts to present Ben Tzur, Greenwood, or the various musicians they recorded with in any sort of character-establishing way.

There’s not much story here, and it would be nice to hear more from Greenwood or Ben Tzur, but Anderson seems more than content doing nothing more than watching geniuses at work. Sort of like how PTA could smear shit onto a camera lens for two hours and I’d call for someone’s head when he doesn’t get an Oscar for it. 

Junun and The Last Waltz  share almost no similarities, but it’ll be helpful to take advice from The Band’s concert film while watching Junun: This film should be played loud.

Rating: See this move if you like Paul Thomas Anderson or Jonny Greenwood. Definitely listen to this album.