Engaging docu “Re:Gen-eration” charts an experiment conducted under the Grammys’ auspices that matched leading producer-DJs in the electronica and hip-hop realms with talent in other musical genres to create collaborative tracks. The resulting recordings (available for free download) are, on the whole, less than triumphant. But the process recorded by helmer Amir Bar-Lev holds attention with its peek at the widely ranging personalities, work methods and expertise demonstrated by musicians of different generations and varying experience. Pic’s future looks bright in broadcast and via educational exposure after its limited theatrical release this month.
Randomly assigned genres to explore — via live performance, rather than sampling — the artist-protagonists are variably enthused at first. Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland (aka the Crystal Method) are thrilled to go to Detroit and work with original R&B legends like Martha Reeves and the Funk Brothers. Los Angeles native Sonny Moore (aka Skrillex) is at home teaming with the surviving members of the Doors, while London-born multihyphenate Mark Ronson is delighted to probe the deep jazz roots of New Orleans with stellar help from Erykah Badu, Trombone Shorty, Zigaboo Modeliste and Mos Def.
On the other hand, young techno party king Pretty Lights (nee Derek Vincent Smith) is nonplussed at being assigned country music; he dislikes its “twanginess” and feels awkward giving direction to veteran session players (let alone 84-year-old bluegrass figurehead Ralph Stanley). Longtime hip-hop producer and performer DJ Premier is clearly intimidated by his lack of knowledge in classical music, though composer-scholar Bruce Adolphe and conductor Stephen Webber and the Berklee College of Music Orchestra prove most congenial guides.
The artists’ experiences working up tracks in the studio provide a study in contrasts: Living institutions like Reeves and Stanley prove intransigent in what they will and won’t do, requiring compromise from electronic artists used to deciding and doing nearly everything themselves. Skrillex and Pretty Lights, in particular, seem to prompt wary responses from their new collaborators, not least because they act/sound like inarticulate adolescents.
Ronson, by contrast, experiences a lovefest in the smooth evolution of his project, which also emerges as the best of the finalized tracks. And DJ Premier’s sheer delight at having an actual orchestra (the Berklee Symphony) at his disposal is nothing if not infectious, even if the result on which he scratches, and guest Nas raps, feels like little more than a novelty.
While this sort of mashup may not reap major sonic rewards, “Re:Generation’s” greatest overall virtue is its encouraging such cross-breeding between musicians and genres. That’s a lesson that will hopefully not be lost on tomorrow’s producers, DJs and hitmakers, as popular music grows ever shorter on original, organic creation and longer on lazily recycling ideas and hooks.
While comparatively lightweight in content alongside Bar-Lev’s prior directorial features “Fighter,” “My Kid Could Paint That” and “The Tillman Story” — all among the finest U.S. docus of recent years — “Re:Generation” is expertly packaged on all levels.