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(A partnership between The Recording Academy and Hyundai, Re:Generation premiered in February during GRAMMY Week. Watch a special online premiere of the film below. Re:Generation will also be screened this week at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. See below for screening information.)
On the surface, Re:Generation addresses a familiar musical theme: What happens when you ask disparate, seemingly incompatible talents to create music together?
But the reality of this documentary, a partnership between The Recording Academy and Hyundai, digs far deeper.
Screening this week at the annual South by Southwest Music, Film and Interactive Conference in Austin, Texas, Re:Generation is not only about accepting and appreciating diverse musical genres, but about reimagining music from the past with an ear on the present and future. Five DJs/producers collaborate with artists from five different genres in five attempts to "re:generate" music. Or, in the words of hip-hop's DJ Premier, who tackles a classical composition with composer Bruce Adolphe, conductor Stephen Webber, rapper Nas, and the Berklee Symphony Orchestra: "Music can't die as long as someone keeps on makin' it fresh."
From medieval troubadours and train-hopping folk singers to Top 40 covers of obscure songs, the concept of cross-genre collaboration has always driven both the art and commerce of music. But watching turntablist and beat-maker Premier reimagine the centuries-old works of white-wigged geniuses, waving a baton as he conducts a full orchestra, one can't help but be struck by the level of cross-pollination happening — or the level of joy most of the collaborators share in discovering how to combine their familiar processes into a new whole.
"We were trying to have the possibilities be as wide as possible. That's how we came up with the assignments," says Amir Bar-Lev, the film's director. "One of the things that's most interesting about music films is that most drama has to come from conflict, and music films are an exception. You can really enjoy watching conflict in a music film, and you can also enjoy things going smoothly."
Also featured in the film is Skrillex, who won the first three GRAMMYs of his career in February. As the 24-year-old gets the living members of the Doors into a Santa Monica, Calif., recording studio and tries to explain what he has in mind, their segue from who-is-this-kid skepticism to how-cool-is-this enthusiasm is something to behold.
"I really appreciated the way the Doors handled the collaboration," Bar-Lev says. "I appreciated the way Skrillex did, too, because he had the right amount of humility, and he was genuine and earnest. I enjoyed watching the ice thaw. I enjoyed watching them cook."
While Skrillex and the Doors cover rock with "Breakin' A Sweat," the Crystal Method's Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland re-examine R&B in Detroit with Martha Reeves and the famed Funk Brothers, yielding "I'm Not Leaving." GRAMMY winner Mark Ronson finds a jazz groove with "A La Modeliste" in New Orleans with fellow GRAMMY winner Erykah Badu, Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste, Trombone Shorty, Mos Def, and members of the Dap Kings. Electronica DJ Pretty Lights reinvents the folk standard "Wayfaring Stranger" with GRAMMY winners Ralph Stanley and LeAnn Rimes in Nashville.
Bar-Lev, whose previous credits include My Kid Could Paint That and The Tillman Story, had a DJ project in development for television several years ago and was delighted to revisit the concept in coming onboard for Re:Generation.
The documentary not only shows the environments that shaped the collaborators' foundations (in one heartbreaking scene, Reeves watches the Ford Theater, where she performed her first big show, crushed by a wrecking ball), but the resulting fruits of the DJs' collective labor.
"What you see in the film is electronica artists challenging themselves to dive deeper, and to use their technology, not just to make things extraordinarily accessible, but to make things rich and complex," Bar-Lev says.
"Musicians borrow from the past, learn from the past, and then move music into the future by standing on the shoulders of those who came before them," he adds. "It's a pretty traditional story we're telling … I mean, that's what music is, and that's why I love music."
(Austin-based journalist Lynne Margolis currently contributes to American Songwriter, NPR's Song of the Day and newspapers nationwide, as well as several regional magazines and NPR-affiliate KUT-FM's "Texas Music Matters." A contributing editor to The Ties That Bind: Bruce Springsteen from A To E To Z, she has also previously written for Rollingstone.com and Paste magazine.)
Re:Generation is being screening in conjunction with South by Southwest at the following locations:
Tuesday, March 13, 10 p.m.: Alamo Slaughter Lane
Friday, March 16, 2 p.m.: Vimeo Theater
Saturday, March 17, 5 p.m.: Alamo Village
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