Directed by Amir Bar Lev and produced in association with the Grammys, Re:Generation is a documentary that explores the process behind making music as a DJ and producer through an experiment that sends five DJs on a quest to work in a specific genre outside their normal output.
It sounds like something that Donald Trump would make a set of C-list celebrities do on The Apprentice, but the result is a fascinating glimpse into the intricacies underlying a DJ's art, and how impressive they can be when working from scratch.
To what lengths DJs should be considered composers is a constant debate, and the reactions of the traditional musicians to these sample-based artistes during Re:Generation tells as much about the state of the genre in the music industry as it does about the individuals chronicled. Formerly we were firmly in the category that working a turntable and cutting-and-pasting random samples was not nearly as legitimate an art form as, say, playing the guitar, but the documentary has converted us, and we can now say that a good DJ is every bit the maestro any other musician is.
Skrillex, who just took home three Grammy awards, tackled the rock genre, and chose to work with the three surviving members of The Doors. Ray Manzarek and Robbie Krieger appear eager in the film, sparked by the challenge of working outside their own box as much as Skrillex, who confesses a lifelong love of the iconic band.
Both elder statesmen slide easily into the loose improvisational style that was the mark of songs like "Light My Fire," with Manzarek telling Skrillex to, "Pump the motherfucker." All three lend simple vocals to the song, and the Doors take Skrillex on a walking tour of the beach areas that dominated the band's early writing sessions and atmosphere.
Doors Drummer John Densmore, recording separately from his former colleagues, is clearly more reticent. He says that, as a drummer, he fears the day when people dance only to machines, but like Krieger and Manzarek, he is still perfectly willing to live up to the name of his band and stand between the known and the unknown.
He utilizes Afro-Cuban instruments to add flair and an organic vibe to "Light My Fire," and where their relationship begins with a considerable bit of sizing up of one another, Densmore and Skrillex clearly part with a great deal of mutual appreciation.
By contrast, Pretty Lights' journey into the realm of country is so awkward as to be painful to watch. Derek Smith makes his disappointment with his assignment quite clear, being completely ignorant of country music's rich history. His reticence is mirrored in the faces of the musicians with whom he comes in contact, all of whom clearly have no respect for the saggy-panted, skewed-hat producer.
Smith works with Dr. Ralph Stanley, one of the great bluegrass voices, on the folk song "Poor Wayfaring Stranger." The 84-year-old singer makes it quite clear he's not interested in Smith's direction, and Smith brings in LeAnn Rimes to a later session to achieve the vocal sounds he was looking for.
Ironically, in spite of contentious nature of the recording, Pretty Lights' finished product may be the best song featured in the film. His take on the folk classic is full of deep nuance and sadness, making for quite the experimental dance track.
One DJ who is completely in his element is Mark Ronson, who draws the straw for jazz. Ronson is more producer than mixmaster, displaying a deep knowledge of the genre and a succinct capability on multiple instruments. He guides a team of brilliant musicians that includes Trombone Shorty and Erykah Badu with confidence and efficiency. His style is smooth and capable, and every person he works with fits easily into the project with a distinct click.
When it comes time to unveil the song, "A La Modeliste," Ronson chooses to perform it live in New Orleans with the full band, a move that should put to rest any doubts about his ability to hold his own.
A similar experience occurs when the Crystal Method pursues an R&B song. Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland are both big Motown fans, and enlist the aid of the Vandellas' Martha Reeves in order to capture the decline of Detroit.
Reeves, in an eye-opening experience for the Crystal Method, is perfectly willing to work with them, but adamant about being a part of the writing process. The Method seems somewhat chagrined by her insistence on picking out the exact words to bring to light the message of loyalty to the Motor City in "I'm Not Leaving," as well as the incredible perseverance of the people who choose to stay there, but the final product speaks for itself.
By far the most enjoyable part of the film is native Houstonian DJ Premier, who ends up working with Nas and the Berklee Symphony Orchestra on a track built from classical sources. No DJ featured in the film is as excited or eager to learn as Premier, who dives head first into a world that typically views any non-classically trained musician with open contempt.
After sampling select beats of various recordings, the song is re-orchestrated to reflect his vision, played live with a nervous Premier taking a turn at the conducting stand.
Once the song is laid down, Nas does what all great rappers do, and "Regeneration" ends up as an epic experiment in melded styles. Hopefully, Premier will continue in this vein, maybe throwing in an occasional Handel aria to complement whichever MC shares the vision with him.
Re:Generation perfectly makes the case for DJs to be considered equal to other disciplines. While some will still quibble about their methodology, there can no longer be any doubt about the lengths a skilled DJ will go to in order to produce a track.
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Just as some drummers are glorified metronomes, some DJs are, of course, glorified jukeboxes but at the top of their profession, there is magic being made.
Re:Generation plays both area locations of Studio Movie Grill, City Center (805 Town & Country Blvd.) and Copperfield (8580 Hwy. 6. North), tonight at 8 p.m. and again Thursday, Feb. 23.