The Re:Generation Music Project takes 5 very different kinds of music producers (Skrillex, The Crystal Method, Mark Ronson, DJ Premier, and Pretty Lights) pairs them each with artists from contrasting backgrounds (Martha Reeves, Nas, Dr. Ralph Stanley, Erykah Badu, The Doors, Trombone Shorty, LeAnn Rimes, Mos Def, the Berklee Symphony Orchestra), and then takes them all around the country with a single goal in mind: Come together to create great music.
At a downtown LA kickoff event hosted by the film’s sponsor (the Hyundai Motor Company), director Amir Bar-Lev took a break from making the final edits to his creation and sat down with Buzzine’s Stefan Goldby to talk about the beginnings of the project, the highlights of the movie, and the magical musical moments along the path to Re:Generation.
Stefan Goldby: In the directorial arc of Amir Bar-Lev, it is not exactly the most obvious jump to go from My Kid Could Paint That to The Tillman Story to Re:Generation. Could the link perhaps be the construction of narratives? Or are you the only link there is?
Amir Bar-Lev: [Laughs] Thank you for knowing my oeuvre, so to speak. And no, there is no connection. The connection is… [Laughs]… Look, I was hired for this film, but it was a happy coincidence, because these are interests of mine… a lot of people [since Amir made The Tillman Story] come up to me and talk to me about football, and it’s always quite awkward because I love football, but I don’t know football. The same goes for art and stuff. So you just happen into these things, and you try to bring something to the table. But I got hired for this: It’s a for-hire gig. I actually got hired for Tillman too, by the way.
So you immerse yourself in something. But I’ll tell you the truth – and really, you are getting the candid, several-drinks-later interview [Laughs] but the reality is that when they asked me about my familiarity of DJs and stuff like that, I said that I’m quite familiar with it. But what I was talking about was hip-hop DJs and dub reggae music. I don’t know electronica: I really had to crib for this job. Like, on the phone, “Yeah okay, Skrillex: Yeah, he’s great!” I was happy that some people who I’m real fans of were in the film, and then I became fans of the people who I didn’t know. But no throughline!
SG: What was the starting point for picking such a wide cross-section of musicians?
ABL: What I think is cool about this film is it’s an artifice that creates a natural kind of outcome. And the conception of it was to take people who have real disparate backgrounds and perspectives, and to kind of force them to create great music together. And that was what all these guys, to their credit, signed on for. So, to your question, the idea was to pick people from a very broad panorama of musical influences.
SG: Within that creation process, the film shows some magic moments and realizations. You got to be in the room with all of them. For you, as the professional fan (but still a fan) in the room, what was the most thrilling musical moment?
ABL: Erykah Badu! There were a lot of great moments, but I have to pick the number-one moment: There’s a coda to the Badu-Ronson song that is really gorgeous, and it sounds kind of like “Bag Lady” almost, but it’s something different… When I’m directing, I don’t operate camera and I don’t operate sound and stuff, so there’s really nothing for me to do, and it’s a vérité kind of situation, so really what I normally do is try to crouch out of the way with two cameras, so there are a lot of places that I had to hide. So what it ended up being is literally lying on the floor, because it was a long, long day… With Badu, it was a 17-hour day, so at some point, I was lying on the floor and it was just Erykah Badu writing a song with a beautiful coda, and that was a piece of heaven. A piece of heaven: That’s my answer. [Laughs]
SG: What are you proudest of about the finished film?
ABL: The film isn’t finished, as we speak right this second. I was editing until I came here, and I will be editing very early in the morning, so it’s really not quite done. This is a challenging film because there’s a lot that’s being asked here. It’s supposed to be good music; at the same time, it’s supposed to be a good film, and sometimes those things are in competition. There are a lot of other criteria at work, so we’re all walking a tightrope. Fortunately, there’s a lot of really smart people and huge music lovers involved. This is like a music-lover’s dream – this film – so what I am proud of is that I think it’s a nice collaboration between a lot of different people.
I’ll tell you something: the dirty secret of this film is that all we’re doing is we’ve set up a conceit to draw attention to something that really isn’t so unique… You could say, “Oh, Re:Generation. Landmark, New… blah blah blah.” It’s really not that new, what’s going on here. Our whole point is that this is what’s been going on forever.
Music has always relied on the past to move into the future, and there’s always been this dynamic and productive tension between traditionalists on the one hand, and non-traditionalists on the other. And it’s just like the little piece of sand in the clam that make the pearl… We’ve just created a scenario to sort of highlight that, but there’s nothing new about this particular notion.
SG: But there is something new about the way the funding came together. Branded entertainment is a common term du jour: It’s bandied around 83 million ways to Sunday, but this project seem to be the real version of the term. There’s art here, as well as commerce. You are the guy that has to strike that balance as well…
ABL: That’s an interesting point. Since people have been painting paintings, there have been sponsors and stuff like that. But it’s new to me, quite frankly. You’re a filmmaker and a journalist… I tend to work very light on my feet and be a fly on the wall and work in a scrappy catch-as-catch-can way… And in this case, I was able to film my musical heroes with gorgeous lighting, prime lenses, fantastic cameras, dollies, multiple cameras, huge crew… and so yes, there’s art! I didn’t know that is the term du jour, but here I am, and yeah, there’s a lot of things to be balanced.
I give a lot of credit to the people who have financed this… and like I said, there’s a lot of things being balanced here and a lot of people who are willing to balance. They are giving me a lot of room and they’re giving the musicians a lot of room, and the musicians are giving the car company and the director and the journalists a lot of room too. We’re imposing on them, they’re imposing on us, and it’s like a bunch of people in a tight corner, who are all working really nicely together.
SG: The good news is that all the hard work in a tight corner has paid off and a compelling final product is starting to emerge. But as the man who needs to realize his vision, what do you think is going to be the number-one reason for somebody to see this film when it premieres during Grammy Week?
ABL: This is a film for music-lovers, and if you are the type of person who has patience to really listen to music… some people who treat music as wallpaper, and the type of people who, you get in the car with them and you say, “Listen to this song,” and they listen to a couple of bars and then they start talking to you about what the f*** happened to them last night: That’s not the right people for this movie.
It’s not that this is a slow movie, and it doesn’t ask anything of the audience, but the dynamic moments in it are in listening to fantastic music being written. If you’re the type of person who appreciates that, as I am, then it’s your movie. And if, for you, musicians are just celebrities and you just want to hear about their coke problems or whatever, and it’s like a People magazinething for you, this is probably not your movie, because we don’t go there. We just let musicians be musicians.
Greenlight Media’s 'Re:Generation' Music Project is in select theaters February 16, 2012