A music/film project explores how musicians collaborate across generations

Are DJs musicians? Is dancing to a machine somehow less righteous than shaking your ass to a breathing and sweating rhythm section? These are questions brought up by the documentary-style film Re:Generation, which follows five producers and DJs as they get paired up with practitioners of (mostly) unlikely musical genres for a collaborative project. The film is as much about the pervasiveness of mash-up culture and the dynamics of collaboration as it is about music.

Made in conjunction with the Grammys (come to think of it, much of the film feels like one of those self-congratulatory filmed commemorations you see in the middle of an awards show), Re:Generation follows Skrillex, Pretty Lights, the Crystal Method, DJ Premier and Mark Ronson as they all set out to work on recording, re-imagining and re-mixing exemplars of rock, jazz, R&B, country and classical music.

Ronson, backed by members of the Daptones and the Antibalas bands, works with legends like Meters drummer (and certainly one of the greatest drummers ever) Zigaboo Modeliste as well as singer Erykah Badu. Their New Orleans-steeped jam is more funk-soul gumbo than "jazz," the purported genre they're tackling. And watching Badu — beautiful, poised and soulful — as she ribs Ronson upon their introduction is as entertaining as the recording session, which yields probably the most successful collaboration. (Badu's chanted refrain of "Your mama don't wear no drawers" is a stroke of off-the-cuff genius.)

Electronic artist Pretty Lights, a self-described "dude in baggy pants," is paired with country pioneer Ralph Stanley. This is more squirm-inducing. When Pretty Lights suggests that Stanley sing "Wayfaring Stranger" in the style of Burl Ives, country fans are liable to choke on their Moon Pies. (Stanley responds with: "I'd rather just do it my way. I never could copy anybody." And the DJ later tells the camera, "I was like, 'fuck,' I am screwed.")

Watching these young stars grapple with taking some form of creative control when working with seasoned veterans is where Re:Generation gets most interesting. These are DJs and producers who are used to sampling music and reconfiguring and repurposing largely without having to consult the original artists. When the guys from Crystal Method try to get Martha Reeves to sing a song they wrote about the city of Detroit, they're faced with resistance to the tone of the words. "That's somebody else's lyric," Reeves says, making it clear the song will have to change. One of the Crystal Method duo says they'd hoped to have a rapport with their collaborators, but "There just wasn't time."

When dubstep artist and producer Skrillex works with the Doors, drummer John Densmore maps out the old-fogey position of being opposed to working with synthesized sounds and mechanized drums. "I'm always partial to humanity, or real musicians," he tells Skrillex upon meeting him, which could be a deal-breaker here, but isn't.

Hip-hop producer DJ Premier seems to have a rewarding collaboration, taking snippets of 11 classical pieces, reworking them on his laptop and then sending them off to have the music transcribed for orchestra. He then gets to try conducting.

What the film inadvertently highlights is just how much the isolated nature of modern musical production seems to work against the very thing that created the scenes and cultures that are celebrated by the producers. But the end recordings played live in front of festival audiences in a few cases — complete with the help of blinding lights, video-game-like effects, smoke machines and bobbing dancers — demonstrate that this is club music, meant for chest-pounding speakers.

Ultimately the film reveals a difference in mash-up culture and older musical styles — the younger artists seem to prize a texture or a momentary groove or snippet, whereas some of the veterans are concerned with developing a longer narrative flow, a larger architecture. One isn't necessarily better than the other. But the idea of the drive-by, impersonal, jammed-together project is the way of the moment. It still allows for all kinds of artistic impulses and surprises. "Sometimes it's just one little thing that triggers a paradigm shift," as Badu says while she's working on a lyric on the fly. "I carve away all the clay until there's something nice underneath."


Re:Generation Music Project

Feb. 16, Bow Tie Palace 17 & Odyssey Theater, 330 New Park Ave., Hartford and Rave Buckland Hills 18 & IMAX, 99 Redstone Rd., Manchester.

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