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Radiohead Guitarist Joins Indian Musicians To Make Transfixing Music In 'Junun'
For Junun, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood joins an Indian qawwali group and Israeli singer/guitarist for one of the most inspiring intercontinental musical collaborations in recent memory.
For the documentary of the same name, Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master, There Will Be Blood) adopts a fly-on-the-wall approach to filming the making of the album, whose title roughly translates to "the madness of love" in several languages. The album is a collaboration between Greenwood (who soundtracked There Will Be Blood, among other Anderson films), the Indian group the Rajasthan Express and Israeli musician Shye Ben Tzur.
The music made is placed first and foremost, with context as an afterthought. As such, the short, 54-minute film is laser-focused.
It begins as the group performs sitting in a circle on the floor, blending hypnotic beats with vibrant horns and chanted vocals, while Greenwood unfurls mystic tangles of effected guitar and Tzur leads his arrangements with elemental fingerpicking. Anderson's handheld camcorder swings slowly around the group as the song progressively grows in power. At the song's conclusion, you may find yourself tempted to rise in ovation.
Much of the film continues in a similar fashion, introducing a fascinating array of Indian musicians and instruments to the uninitiated. Greenwood unfurls mystic tangles of effected guitar around dense beats created by the group's rumbling drums, such as the dholak and bhapang. The stringed sarangi and kamaicha converge masterfully with Tzur's Hebrew-sung vocal on "Hu." Singers Afshana Khan and Razia Sultan are coached on pronunciation while singing the refrain to the mournful "Chala Vahi Dies"—it's explained that India has so many languages, this is pretty normal.
It would be easy for Anderson's camera to drool over the gorgeous golden walls of the temple in Jodhpur, India, where the album was recorded, or linger on spectacular aerial shots of the sprawling city, taken with a drone. Instead, Anderson smartly provides shots like these, or an intriguing trip into town to tune a harmonium, as quick respites before diving back into the recording.
What you won't get is much in the way of explanation of how (or why) the album was made. There's no footage of the airport, or exploration into the lives of each musician—heck, Greenwood and producer Nigel Godrich barely speak in the film. It's best to read about the details beforehand and let the music wash over you—Junun is more of a performance film than one with a clear narrative.
Greenwood himself has addressed being "wary of rock bands half-heartedly dabbling in world music," as he told the Evening Standard, but cites Damon Albarn's commitment to working with Malian musicians as evidence that such meetings can be worthwhile. A clear comparison would also be Ry Cooder's work with musicians in Cuba in Buena Vista Social Club, the resulting music and film bearing rich fruit. While Junun is a bit too short and scant on details to make as much of an impact as a film like that, the music it documents leaves a substantial impression—which seems to be Anderson's goal.
Junun the album will be released Nov. 20 on Nonesuch.