In less capable hands, “Re:generation Music Project” would have felt much more like a hugely expensive commercial (it’s being sponsored by the Hundai Veloster and the Grammys). It isn’t entirely clear why the Hundai and the Grammys are so keen on the project, although you have to assume they’re at least vaguely sinister. But it’s a testament to the artistry of filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev (who previously directed “The Tillman Story” and “My Kid Could Paint That“) and the soundness of the concept that the movie doesn’t come across as some elongated, mega-budgeted ad for a sportier version of the car you probably lost your virginity in. In fact, at the end of the day, “Re:generation Music Project” stands as a fairly powerful, toe-tapping look at the malleability of music and the willingness of current artists to look to the past to create something entirely modern and new (with optional leather interior).
The concept (hatched, undoubtedly, by the wags at the Grammys) is simple: five deejays or electronic musicians are selected, and each musician is given a different musical genre to interpret. Las Vegas electronic duo The Crystal Method (Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland) are given the soul assignment, while influential New York producer DJ Premiere is awarded classical music. American dub-step artist Pretty Lights (nee Derek Vincent Smith), is tasked with tackling country, while recent Grammy-winner Skrillex (Sonny Moore) lands rock-and-roll, and Mark Ronson, the bi-continental producer extraordinaire (and supremely handsome dude) handles jazz.
So the “narrative” of “Re:generation,” as much as there is one, is fractured, oscillating between the five mini-storylines that many times play out like fish-out-of-water comedies. As we watch each musician travel to a different location to get to work, we realize that it’s not simply about reconfiguring some aged musical genre. It’s also about absorbing enough about that genre to properly tip it on its head. Pretty Lights, who looks like the sweaty guy you’re trying to avoid getting rubbed up against at a party, travels to Nashville to get a crash course in country western history, while DJ Premiere takes a more academic approach to learning and appreciating classical music. In a particularly touching section of the film, The Crystal Method, who have traveled to Detroit to enlist the help of soul singer Martha Reeves (lead singer of the Motown group Martha and the Vandellas), walk around the crumbling city with Reeves, literally watching as one of the venues she used to perform in is being ripped apart by cranes and bulldozers.
Sometimes the artists have trouble getting a grip on their subject. Pretty Lights gets legendary country western singer and banjo player Ralph Stanley for his cover of “Wayfaring Stranger,” a kind of mythic southern ballad. But Pretty Lights is concerned by Stanley’s delivery on the song and his reluctance to change the lyrics at Pretty Light’s insistence. (He later hires a skeletal Leann Rimes to help out.) Skrillex, who really does seem like he’s better off stocking Rammstein T-shirts at Hot Topic, has to prove his chops with the surviving members of The Doors. At one point one of them, grizzled and just as rock-and-roll as ever, requests the cameras be turned off so that he and Skrillex can have a one-on-one. Skrillex ultimately convinces him, but it’s a nice reminder that sometimes the best art can come out of creative conflict. Not always, but sometimes.
The breeziest process was probably Mark Ronson‘s Mardi Gras-ready jazz number that ended up being called “A La Modeliste,” after the amazing drummer Ziggy Modeliste (from funk band The Meters) that Ronson enlisted for the track. Ronson has an easy-going, I-can-do-anything aura and he never lets his legendary collaborators or the daunting prospect of his assignment get the better of him (this probably comes from taking gigs like Paul McCartney‘s wedding), although there is an adorably candid moment where he brings in Erykah Badu to help out with lyrics and vocals and she reminds him that they met one time before, when he was deejaying (and really, really drunk). Over lunch (literally), she comes up with the most ridiculously catchy hook for the song, partially inspired by trombone player Trombone Shorty going to get gumbo. If Bar-Lev isn’t creating the sparks of creative genius right there, then I don’t know what creative genius looks like. After you hear the finished song (which ended up with instrumentation by Sharon Jones’ Dap Kings and backing vocals by Mos Def), you’ll really think it’s almost insidiously catchy – it’s tough to get out of your head.
And all of these bits would have been well and good and mildly interesting, a peek behind the curtain of an often confounding and mysterious artistic process, but then Bar-Lev brings it all together in the movie’s last movement. We watch as DJ Premier (whose own entry has impressive instrumentation and a guest verse by Nas) gets the records from all the other artists. He sits down and plays each one, and we get glimpses of those performers in action, many of them performing the tracks for the first time in deejay sets or intimate club engagements, and the movie comes into focus – it’s about the various artists’ shared love of music, their willingness to experiment with easily manipulated genres, and the fun that can come out of creative collaboration. You also get to see how important this music is to young kids today, especially the throngs who show up (some of them barely dressed) to outdoor raves where Skrillex and Pretty Lights play. It’s kind of awe-inspiring. It’s then that the movie reaches a joyous peak that flirts with transcendence. It’s enough to make you want to get out of your seat and dance. Something tells me that wouldn’t exactly be frowned upon. And not once are you thinking about the weird, three-door coupe that made this all possible. [A-]