The Grammys often get a sneer from the music elitists (myself included) who see the awards ceremony as a glorification of mainstream sludge, made possible by a 54-year old institution that’s out-of-touch. Coming out of an innovative left field is the documentary film “RE:GENERATION,” directed by Amir Bar Lev( “My Kid Could Paint That,” “The Tillman Story”) and in association with The Grammys, which showcases today’s influential producer/DJs who remix and collaborate with music veterans to recreate new songs across a myriad of genres.
Each artist – Marc Ronson, Pretty Lights, The Crystal Method, DJ Premier and Skrillex – was assigned to work with musicians from specific genres and write a new song in just two days. This idea seems to take the concept of mashup to a whole new, organic and real-world level, where the artists themselves (and not a lone Girl Talk) are given the environment for which to reinvent elements of music that span the generations and genres.
For some, the transition into a different style of music seemed natural and seamless, but for others the struggle was obvious.
Derek Vincent Smith of Pretty Lights (and a Colorado hometown boy), found venturing into the world of country music to be a bit difficult to envision; how he would accomplish fusing his style of music with the “twang” was something foreign.
Skrillex, who grew up on rock and roll via his parents (with proof shown by a home video of the little lad) and their love for The Doors, seemed overwhelmed with the actual idea that he would be writing a song with the remaining members, Robbie Krieger, Ray Manzarek and John Densmore. But after the introductions, and Skillex giving his heroes a listen to his musical starting point for the song, which included the signature Skrillex dubstep assault, Manzarek was taken aback as he said, “Okay, let’s go back to square one.”
The bridge between R&B and The Crystal Method doesn’t seem to be too long, especially as the two members, Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland, speak of their love of vintage R&B as they peruse through a record store where they’ve sunk many a dollar on classic Motown discs from the day.
Teamed with Martha Reeves (The Vandellas and The Funk Brothers) in Detroit, the task was to write a tribute, a love song to her city of Detroit that she’s seen crumble right before her eyes. The film even captures the three witnessing the demolition of the Ford Theatre where she got her start decades before. It also captures the strain of the three trying to come to the center on the lyrics that best represent the belief of riding out the rough times long enough to see Detroit rise again.
Where I expected to see the most distance was with hip-hop producer, DJ Premier, and his assignment to work in the classical music realm, teaming with Bruce Adolph as his mentor and the Berklee Symphony Orchestra for the final production recording. But Premier was a kid in a candy store, tapping back into his childhood music lessons with a renewed vigor, where you’re exposed to “the basic structures of learning reading music before you even play.”
Also teaming with Nas for the rap that would float on top of the symphonic architecture he designed, Premier introduced him to the concepts he had in mind to marry sounds as diverse as hip-hop and classical. And in the process, Premier almost seemed to surprise himself, as if the guys with the wigs and the fancy dress were reaching a laced-covered hand across time to collab with them.
For Marc Ronson, who was huddled down in the Piety Studios in New Orleans, this historical environment and jazz city was as much an influence as the infamous musicians in his midst, including Trombone Shorty, Zigaboo Modeliste and Members of The Dap Kings.
But this renowned producer got nervous as he anticipated of the arrival of Erykah Badu, who would provide lyrical and vocal sauce to the stew. His nervousness turned to grimace as she reminded him that the last the two met he was a bit tipsy in Miami and laid down his best pick up moves. Ouch (aka, pretty funny).
With his professional hat back on and guitar in hand, he led the group in laying down the line for the chorus, which led to the lyrical inspiration of gumbo, which led to the improvisational session that was a “little too jazzy,” Ronson says with a wink and a laugh. And adding ice to the cake was Mos Def, who just happened to be in the neighborhood, literally, in time to join in on the recording of “A La Modeliste.”
After being intimidated by a man half his size but with twice the stubbornness, Dr. Ralph Stanley, Pretty Lights made concessions on the lyrics for this new version of “Wayfaring Stranger,” ultimately getting what he wanted with the addition of LeAnn Rimes’ floating vocals.
Magic also happened in the Los Angeles studio as The Doors waved their instrumental wands and got into the Skrillex groove, coming out the end with “Breakn’ A Sweat.” And the youngster was relieved to know after the fact, and not before, that this was the first song Krieger, Manzarek, and Densmore had collaborated on in 30 years.
DJ Premier was presented with “Regeneration” in physical form by the conductor of the Berklee Symphony Orchestra, along with a conductor’s baton to lead the players as Nas rhymed over top.
And for the guys in The Crystal Method, “I’m Not Leaving” paid the utmost tribute to the beloved Motor City with Ms. Reeves at the helm, strong and dignified as she sings, “I’m standing tall / Tell everyone that you meet / Put the dancing back in the street / I’m not leaving / I’m not going nowhere.”
Coming full circle with the delivery of the white label discs, we see the DJs back in their natural habitat playing their new RE:GENERATION works, including Pretty Lights throwing down “Wayfaring Stranger” at Red Rocks as the dance kids lap it up like kittens to milk.
The “RE:GENERATION” film as whole is a love song dedicated to music, to those who have made it, reaching back to generations from the past and generations to come, across the styles that each influence the other, and for the music fans that can’t live without it.
It brings both musicians and music fans out of their element, challenging those to venture down genre paths they wouldn’t normally take to then expand their horizons.
For Ronson, he hopes to inspire, “the kid sitting his basement in Nebraska thinking that he wants to make something that no one’s ever heard before. I think that drive to be original is what will keep music evolving. And that’s what RE:GENERATION is.”
A unique nationwide, one-night only theatrical release takes place in select cities (including AMC Highlands Ranch and Harkins 18 in Denver) Thursday, February 16. Encore screenings to be scheduled for Thursday, February 23.
Download the Soundtrack for FREE: regenerationmusicproject.com/music