Amir Bar-Lev's ("The Tillman Story") latest documentary, "Re:Generation," is a limited engagement you don't want to miss. His behind-the-scenes approach delves deep into the creative processes of five DJ-producers as they collaborate with dozens of artists and musicians renowned the world over to produce "new" electronic music from five different genres.
The project, which initially began as a music platform for the launch of a new sports car from Hyundai, evolved into something more culturally relevant when the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (aka the Grammys) cosigned and enlisted DJ Premier, The Crystal Method, Pretty Lights, Mark Ronson and Skrillex to reimagine a specific genre of music (not of their own choosing) to create somewhat original tracks.
"Re:Generation" is more about the means to an end than the end itself, since technology has heavily influenced how these DJs and producers operate. Bar-Lev's film vividly illustrates that the differences between their methods of creating music are bigger than the beats they typically bang. Thankfully, this documentary doesn't take its lead from the hackneyed premise of whether DJs are musicians or not. In the film, turntables and mixers are tools, and laptops and beat machines are instruments of expression -- as are the pianos, drums, and entire brass sections featured prominently in all five of these alchemists' labs.
Stylistically, the film has a "Real World" feel to it, but it's still visually gritty. DJ Premier's cramped studio in Hell's Kitchen, called HeadQcourterz, is so dark and congested with audio equipment and stacks of records it's a wonder he can navigate the trip-wired mass of bundled cables and the colossal mixing board.
Premo is probably the biggest name out of the five, and it's his ability on the wheels of steel, deconstructing and re-contextualizing beats and phrases, that underscores Bar-Lev's vision. His collaboration with the Berklee Contemporary Symphony Orchestra offers a revealing look into his seemingly effortless method of production. Aspiring DJs will salivate at the sight of the maestro digging through the classical crates of a New York City record store, examining the integrity of some Beethoven on wax -- all the way down to the groove -- before taking a dozen more pieces back to the lab. There, they'll be sampled and re-assembled into something new to be scored and orchestrated by an eccentric conductor straight out of the academy.
If "Re:Generation" asserts that "DJ" is a broad and evolving term that extends to someone who is more of a producer, the soundtrack raises the question of how important those functions are when it comes to making great dance music. For that matter, does one have to be able to read music and play multiple instruments to be a great DJ and producer? Not necessarily. In the course of his classical research, Premo reveals to the conductor that he started reading music in his youth before abandoning it for other erstwhile pursuits, though he displays an aptitude for cracking codes by accurately identifying notes on a staff of sheet music. Mark Ronson, the English DJ and producer, demonstrates in his collaboration with Erykah Badu, Mos Def, and the Dap Kings that not only does he read and write sheet music, but he also plays multiple instruments quite well.
So, too, does the film delve into the role that being an effective communicator plays when it comes to succeeding in the music business. Pretty Lights, the Colorado-based rave specialist, has a hell of a time convincing bluegrass octogenarian Dr. Ralph Stanley to sing like Burl Ives for his rendition of the "Wayfaring Stranger," as does The Crystal Method when it comes time to working with Motown legend Martha Reeves. Ultimately both producers transverse the generational gap and salvage their respective projects with end-arounds in post-production, proving yet again that DJs and producers are the lifeblood behind the pulse of electronic music.
This documentary is being released on February 16 for one night only, with encore screenings on February 23.