Re:Generation, the delightful new documentary from Amir Bar-Lev, faithfully explores the myriad ways in which music frequently inspires and occasionally confounds us. If you love music, you should see it. If you love dance music, you must see it. Hell, you might even be in it.
Five DJs — Skrillex, Pretty Lights, Mark Ronson, DJ Premier, and The Crystal Method — were assigned a simple task: produce a new track in an old genre. Skrillex was assigned rock. Pretty Lights got country, Mark Ronson got jazz, Premier got classical, and the Crystal Method got R&B.
To make things easier, each DJ was paired with a legendary act from his assigned genre. Together, they attempted to create magic — to fuse the best of the past with the beats of today. Bar-Lev’s cameras take us deep inside the creative process, into the intimacy of the studio, where men like Sonny Moore (Skrillex) and Derek Smith (Pretty Lights) shed their nervousness and truly express themselves. In the studio, these painfully shy guys are transformed. They’re animated, passionate, inspired. It’s a genuine treat to watch them collaborate with some of the 20th century’s greatest artists. The film unfortunately employs some offensive motion blur, but you find ways to overlook it and focus on what really matters here: the music.
The Re:Generation project was sponsored by Hyundai, which ostensibly wants to use the film to sell its new car, the Veloster. What, therefore, would the film be like? Would it be an insightful documentary, or would it be glorified product placement?
Luckily, it was the former. This is an honest film, full of deeply personal moments between mercurial, talented, slightly crazy people. There are some genuinely funny moments too — most at the expense of Pretty Lights, who has a tough time giving directions to Dr. Ralph Stanley, a bluegrass icon who’s been awarded the National Medal of the Arts. All the awkwardness is worth it in the end; the gloriously haunting “Wayfaring Stranger,” produced by Pretty Lights with vocals by LeAnn Rimes and Dr. Ralph Stanley, might be the finest track of all.
Re:Generation is also a testament to the all the people behind the scenes: the nameless, faceless technicians and engineers who twiddle mysterious knobs and press intimidating buttons that invariably manage to make the music sound better; the musicians who play instruments that make songs musical but never appear on an album cover. There are a lot of them.
At its core, Re:Generation gives us some insight into an intensely important question: are DJ/producers worthy of the same respect we award to musicians who weave their magic with physical instruments? Should we view Skrillex’s laptop with the same wonder we reserve for Erykah Badu’s vocal chords?
The answer, it appears, is yes. Sure, you could argue that Skrillex’s music isn’t “pleasant” to listen to, in the sense that it sometimes lacks what most people would call “nice sounds.” But his distinctive fusion of electro and dubstep has captured the eardrums of dance fans across the world. Skrillex’s tracks are masterpieces of bark and bass. They are filthily cathartic and immensely popular. No other performer incites such anarchy at his shows.
In the late 1960s, four young men who called themselves The Doors were creating similar chaos with their angry but supremely insightful brand of rock n roll. Led by the fiery, tortured Jim Morrison, they became the poster children for the counterculture of the time. Their music sounds absolutely nothing like Skrillex’s but the effect was the same. It sent all the kids wild. At one point in the film, Ray Manzarek of the Doors tells Skrillex “I’ve never heard of you but my son wants your autograph.” Skrillex replies by saying that his dad probably wants Ray’s.
Despite some initial differences, all of the artists eventually figure out how to communicate with each other. Genre is deconstructed and reinvented, generations finally begin to understand each other, and we learn, once again, that music really is a universal language. DJ Premier conducts the Berklee Symphony Orchestra, then puts down a beat for Nas to spit over. The Crystal Method delves into Detroit to find some soul. Mark Ronson channels the spirit of improvisation to create some buoyant New Orleans jazz.
Every artist featured in Re:Generation is part of the same tradition — the tradition of young people stuffing themselves into dark nightclubs and sweaty concerts to lose themselves in music their parents don’t quite understand. No one really knows why we do this, but we do. Maybe it’s because the heat and the pulse and the visceral energy at a show make us feel alive. Maybe it’s escapism. Maybe it’s our way of exposing ourselves to new ideas — ideas that come from artists who are frustrated with the way the world works and use music to transform this pain into bliss because the alternative is insanity.
Re:Generation works because it juxtaposes the emotion and intimacy of the studio with the roar of the rave. It’s funny, heartwarming, and loud, a lovely film about music and the joy it brings us. After seeing DJ Premier, Mark Ronson, and Pretty Lights spin at the afterparty that followed the screening, we were reminded, once again, that there’s nothing better for you than a good night out.
Re:Generation will be shown in select theaters on February 16th and 23rd. You can also download the entire soundtrack for free. For showtimes and more information, check out the project’s website.