REVIEW:

The documentary, and I hesitate to call it a documentary, Re:Generation Music Project (2012) directed by Amir Bar-Lev, attempts to validate the contemporary DJ-slash-producer as true-blue musicians. Although the film is well-produced, the commercialized sheen takes away from the aura of the creative process. It doesn’t properly showcase the interplay of the DJs and musicians and, for the most part, lacks any type of rawness to make it truly compelling. But most of all, the presentation of the thesis, or arbitrary experiment, comes off as a slightly insecure defense of the existence of the DJ/Producer within our modern music scene. Aside from being an extended commercial (sponsored by Hyundai and presented by The Grammys), it comes off as somewhat masturbatory and self-indulgent.

Let’s start with the contrived and manufactured introduction. It opens at a factory where the fabrication of vinyl records takes place; as one of the clichéd layers of this film is the needless and forced homage to history and the paying of respect to the past. It is nostalgia overload. We watch as the black platters are packaged and then delivered by FedEx (literally, not very subtle brand placement of FedEx) to the doors of the five participating DJs. The pizza boxes each contain a set of five records which are labeled with the DJ/Producer and their assigned genres; Mark Ronson with the genre of Jazz, Skrillex with Rock, Pretty Lights with Country, The Crystal Method with R&B, and DJ Premier with Classical Music. It’s unclear if it’s an in media res introduction or if it’s a la Mission: Impossible, “Your mission, should you choose to accept it,” type of thing. Anyway, the made-up novelty of the beginning sequence is confused and spurious which perfectly sets up the muddy premise of the film.

Pretty Lights arrives in Nashville, over the predictable shot of the DJ selecting a song at a juke box, we hear a voice-over confessing in a Dane Cook-ish voice (Pretty Lights also resembles the comic aside from sounding like him) that he wasn’t exactly excited by the country music assignment. The stony DJ is weary of the “twanginess” of country music and is insecure about being able to fuse it with his style of music. Giving himself a crash course in a genre he has nothing to do with, he sends himself to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, on top of going digging at the local record store. He hones in on a dark, haunting, folk cover of Wayfaring Stranger by Burl Ives. Blugrass legend Dr. Ralph Stanley is chosen as a vocal contributor. One of the memorable moments of this film is the awkward meeting between Pretty Lights and Stanley, the bluegrass musician refuses to do a Burl Ives impression as requested by the DJ, the veteran preferring to sing in his own style. Pretty Lights, the young pushover, eventually relents to the elder statesman without a fight. LeAnn Rimes comes in to save PL’s ass by being a willing and malleable studio vocalist in addition to Ralph Stanley’s laid vocals. Pretty Light’s storyline is capped off with the unveiling of his collaborative track at Red Rocks in his home state. Now, I don’t know if this was intentional but the raver kids that are interviewed at Red Rocks before PL’s concert are hilariously dopey. Listening to the clownish concert-goers pontificate about the evolution of music is high comedy. I know I come off as the bitter, old curmudgeon but you just need to watch this sequence and judge for yourself. The hard drops, Man, slave to the vibe, Brah! It goes beyond the ubiquitous hipster-bashing. The young generation is not well-represented in this documentary.

Mark Ronson in New Orleans is probably the most predictable and frictionless pairing of DJ/Producer and genre. Read: boring. Ronson is inexplicably given the music genre of jazz. Could this have been a better fit? And as it developed, the ease of this coupling lent to the staleness of this segment. Even with the floppy Flock-of-Seagulls hairstyle, soft-spoken, effeminate Brit accent of Mark Ronson discussing Charles Mingus and Wu Tang wasn’t enough to make it interesting. After a successful improvised jam session with his crew of virtuoso jazz musicians, he halts the music and jokingly proclaims, “Cool, sounds good. (Though) It’s a little too jazzy.” Everyone laughs. Exactly, Mark, exactly. Therein lay the problem. Ronson, by all means, a superb musician and producer, is completely in his element within this project. Where’s the tension? Where’s the challenge. Aside from recruiting Erykah Badu and the inclusion of a short cameo by Mos Def, there is nothing new being added here. At the end of the day, the resultant jazzy track is forgettable; something you would hear on any weekend at a jazz lounge. It’s a b-side track on one of his records. If I was forced to pick something interesting about this portion of the story it would be a moment where the neo-soulster Badu’s writer’s block is cured after Trombone Shorty mentions that he’s going out for gumbo. While she’s stuck picking at a plate of crudité, a flood of inspiration comes with one mention of a word: gumbo. “Sometimes it’s just one little thing that triggers a paradigm shift,” Erykah reveals. But instead of being impressed with what should be some type of revelation about the entropy of the writing process, it just made me hungry and crave Cajun food.

The Crystal Method are paired with rhythm & blues music. The LA electronic music duo meet 70 year old R&B singer Martha Reeves in Detroit, where she began her long career. They do a whirlwind tour surveying the dilapidated parts of the city, attempting to draw inspiration from the decay. Watching Scott Kirkland (who resembles a combination of Thomas Lennon, Chris Parnell and Joe Lo Truglio) walking around the city typing ideas and notes into his iPad is a facepalm-worthy moment. The delightful moment in this process is the painfully clumsy writing process with Reeves. When the two present her with some hackneyed lyrics about, “Everything will be just fine…” She calls them out on it, “Why?! How? Faith? Hope?” Watching Jordan and Kirkland squirm like architecture students who have poorly presented and are now defending their projects is priceless. The Motor City veteran schools them with a wry smirk, “What’s the chorus? What am I repeating? What am I saying?” Although, she’s a diva, it’s not a diva spell she’s displaying. The critique is honest, the guys are talking about Detroit but aren’t really saying anything.

The most unintentionally comedic segment has to be the bizarre pairing of Skrillex and The Doors. The Diminutive Prince of Dubstep is assigned with rock. Part of the comedy exists in the fact that Skrillz exists as an all-black-everything, goth-y, headbanging, caricature/cartoon character. His over-the-top exuberance and respect for the project combined with the current state of the psychedelic blues rockers, The Doors, is comically priceless. Ray Manzarek is still graceful, cheery and lively, while Robby Krieger looks ancient for 66, doing his best impression of The Emperor with Bono sunglasses meets Fire Marshall Bill. The dude is now damn alien-like. The trio of Angelenos even go for a walk, in tilt-shifty slow-motion, on the Venice Beach Boardwalk; the rock band members pointing out The Lizard King‘s old haunts. Drummer John Densmore who looks completely shell-shocked in his present incarnation is initially apprehensive and weary of the project but after Skrillz throws down the ole dubsteb charm (with cameras NOT rolling), Densmore warms up to the music “collaboration”. Keep an eye out for an ultimate humblebrag by the dubstep dwarf. It’s in regards to how he was honored to make a track with a legendary band like The Doors who haven’t made a track in 30 years (but the Skrillz got the opportunity!).

DJ Premier, the hip hop legend, is paired with classical music. A pairing that had the most potential to be exciting but it also ultimately falls short. He is sent to composer Bruce Adolphe for some tutoring, cramming in brief lessons on the architecture of classical music. One of the better moments in this film is watching Adolphe explain to Premier the importance of context and narrative structure of a composition. At one point, he literally/physically acts out the ebb-and-flows of the classical song they listen to as Premier soaks it in like a wide-eyed student. We unknowingly receive a snippet of the final track when Queensbridge rapper, Nas, shows up in Primo’s studio space. Sadly, the teased loop we hear in the background doesn’t evolve much except for the grandiose intro of the finished track. Primo travels to Boston to meet with Stephen Webber of the Berklee College of Music to learn about orchestration and instrumentation. Webber is easily the least awkward and more charismatic players within this film. He builds a fast rapport with Primo, dropping an f-bomb or two, mirroring the DJ’s enthusiasm for the project. He even shows up with a gift for the DJ, a conductor’s baton. Watching Webber hand over symphony-conducting duties to virgin-DJ Premier is fun. Primo is honored by the orchestra and visibly pumped in their presence, “These people come in here not even knowing what it’s going to sound like and literally duplicate it to the tee. It was like…magic!”

In the end, the finished collaborations stall in invoking any sustained emotional feeling. The songs are just not stimulating. And if the music fails, so does the film; in the sense there isn’t an overarching revelation about the communion between the past and present, the relevance of DJs in the present game, or the process of creating musically, whether if the song is a failure or success.

Take for example, Pretty Light’s production. Ralph Stanley refuses to vocalize a prescribed impression of Burl Ives (even if Stanley agreed, it would have rendered his existence within the project pointless in the first place). So Pretty Lights reaches out to LeAnn Rimes. And what does he do with her vocals? He tweaks her vocals, speeds them up, adds filters, rendering her vocals to where she is unrecognizable. What is the purpose of this collaboration then? This problem is paramount with the majority of DJs involved. Why have these legendary musicians at your disposal if you could have just sampled some MP3s? It’s all for show.

Mark Ronson blandly stays in his lane and produces a predictable jazz song with guest appearances. The final song is the opposite of gumbo. It is watered down soup without spice.

The Crystal Method approach their collaboration as if it’s a homework assignment, a book report they have to complete about the City of Detroit. Their passionless approach is reflected in the final product as their song is a glib one-liner. An easy Hallmark card to a once great city…Motown.

All of the respect and adulation of The Doors that comes spilling out of young Skrillex’s mouth is all pillow talk. Manzarek, Krieger, and Densmore are, essentially, reduced to glorified studio session musicians there for Skrillex to sample and filter like Pretty Lights did. The final product is just another testosterone-driven, bass-plugging, egocentric, brostep Skrillex track with barely any essence of the classic rock band. I found myself pissed watching the self-impressed Skrillex headbang while unveiling the track at his San Diego show.

But most disappointing of all, because of its inherent potential and différence, was the DJ Premier collaboration with classical music. It’s like Primo forgot all of the mentoring that Bruce Adolphe gave him. All the conceptual discussions regarding the importance of context within composition, architecture, and narrative structure is all for naught. In the end, Primo produces a repetitive instrumental that acts as a placeholder for Nas’ boring 16 bars. A complete shame, when there was an opportunity to genuinely speak of recombination in hip hop in a new manner.

Everything is a remix, Kirby Ferguson has convincingly argued this. It is hard to create new things in this epoch. Cross-pollination and hybridization are the new paradigm. We live in a culture of mashups. Purity is an unattainable destination and a self-defeating goal, and a topic that is neither-here-nor-there given our current milieu. But do we have to condescendingly pay respect to our elders and immerse ourselves with nostalgia to gain legitimacy? Mimicry will get you nowhere. In the pursuit of confirmation and validation these DJs/Producers and the director have cooked up a pot of gruel which lacks feeling and tension within discovery. The desperate desire for authentication, ironically, results in an inorganic and forced product. The only times I recall feeling substantial glee was when The Doors’ When the Music’s Over kicked in during the film.

By all means, watch this film (above), it’s free. But I’m guessing you probably won’t feel a thing while viewing it, much like me. I found it indifferent and ultimately pointless. And that is utterly disappointing. Indifference within art is basically…death.

@teemunny


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