After directing the very provocative and highly successful feature documentaries My Kid Could Paint That and The Tillman Story, as well as serving as a co-producer on the Oscar-nominated Trouble the Water, the very talented Amir Bar-Lev found himself being recruited for and hired on to helm an interesting new doc called Re:Generation Music Project, which I highly recommend to anyone who enjoys music of any kind.
This film, which follows five separate pairings of DJs (Premier, Skrillex, Pretty Lights, Mark Ronson and The Crystal Method) with traditional music genres (classical, rock, country, jazz and soul) for mash-ups featuring the likes of The Doors, LeAnn Rimes, Erykah Badu and Martha Reeves, is in theaters nationwide only tonight and February 23 (it will also screen at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin next month).
I talked briefly with Bar-Lev about the experience of being brought on as a director-for-hire, what it was like to shoot these amazing collaborations and how he crafted such an enjoyable feature film that shows absolutely no sign of having been a sponsored effort under the partnership of a car company and the Grammys.
Check out our conversation below:
This is a different kind of documentary in more ways than one. How were you brought on to this project, and what’s it like to be hired for a film as opposed to coming up with the idea yourself?
It’s quite a different experience being hired rather than being part of a documentary project at the inception. I like to flex different filmmaking muscles, and I think it’s a very worthwhile challenge learning to listen to other people’s ideas and figuring out how you can manifest or express them. The filmmaker/editor relationship is such a fruitful and dynamic relationship, and I thought about that relationship a lot as I was directing this film. There’s a sweet spot where you’re bringing a lot of different ideas to the table and not attaching yourself necessarily too much to any one and being very receptive to what the mandate for the project is. And in this case the mandate was a complex one. They wanted it to function as a feature documentary. It’s also a marketing tool. And therefore it had to check a lot of different boxes. I found it a really useful challenge trying to check those boxes.
What drew you to the idea behind the film besides that challenge?
It just so happens that I have been really interested in doing a project around DJs for an extraordinarily long time. I’m a big hip hop fan and turntablism fan and I came up with an idea for a TV show right around when Iron Chef was popular. I decribed it as “Iron Chef for DJs.” It was a pretty demoralizing experience where the network that picked it up changed its name and its mandate after we were under way with the pilot, and then they systematically bleached the show of anything I was interested in. The DJ world has always been full of cred-minded, authenticity-minded people and I spent a lot of time letting people know I was trying to do something non-exploitative and cool. And I had to go back to all these DJs I roped in and say we needed more scantily clad women and less hardcore hip hop and things like that. I had Mixmaster Mike interested in the host role and they wanted to replace him with a scantily clad female host.
So it was that kind of thing. They ended up developing it into the dirt and I put it to bed and thought, well so much for that idea. It was many years ago. And then I watched as the whole remix DJ thing really took off after the fact. Suddenly Sprite had their “remix cola” and Madonna had several versions of some hit out. So the idea was — not to too my own horn, but we were ahead of the curve with this. Now we wouldn’t be with a show like that. Anyhow, when they came to me with the idea my first reaction was, “oh great, I finally get to do my DJ project.” Albeit in a different form, but yeah.
One of the things I love about the film is how it brings together clashing cultures and artists who don’t really know each other or their music styles. Were you familiar with most of the subjects or were you like them and experiencing the same kind of excitement or awkwardness with certain collaborations?
I can tell you that I’m more familiar and comfortable with a lot of the so-called “traditional” music in the film than I am with the electronic music. Each of these stories involves a DJ working with a collaborator or in a preexisting non-electronic genre, and I happen to be a huge soul fan, a huge country fan. And I’m pretty familiar with classical music, New Orleans music. In fact, the only DJ that I was more than passingly familiar with was Premier. I’m almost 40 and I’m not so up on the latest things that DJs are doing. So when you talk about the moments of tension, I found myself seeing both sides of the argument in some of those moments. And perhaps that informs the way that they come across in the film. I definitely am a believer in the way music is constantly evolving. I’m not a purest.
On the other hand I do think there’s a way to make music contemporary and a way not to make older music contemporary. I think a lot of the time when people make something contemporary they’re really making it easily accessible and requiring less work on the part of the listener. A lot of music’s enjoyment comes from doing that work. So I could understand why the more established musicians were concerned that the younger electronic musicians they were working with were not going to honor what they were bringing to the table. I think what you see in the film is that struggle between the two poles of purist traditionalism versus a more laissez-faire approach to everything. It’s a dynamic struggle and there’s no right answer. The struggle is a useful struggle, and the question is a useful question to ask.
This isn’t really a question, but The Doors are probably my all-time favorite band and Skrillex is one of my favorite new artists, and watching them together is a lot of fun because Ray Manzarek and Skrillex are just such dorks together in the studio. How was that?
I’m a humongous Doors fan myself and it was heaven listening to them play, instantly recognizing this music that’s been ingrained in my psyche. I don’t know how else to say it. It was cool. I love Motown too so that was neat. And then when you get into Badu and Mos Def, besides some rock and roll that’s where I do a lot of my loving of music. It was really a treat. It’s funny because you asked me about my initial reactions and stuff and when I first started thinking about this movie, about how to execute it, I had a lot more exploration of the questions around appropriation and rights and stuff like that, some of the more interesting issues and debates around sampling.
A lot of the movies I’ve seen where it takes place mostly in a studio are boring as all get out. I thought the movie would not be able to sustain as much time in the studio as it ended up being able to sustain. So that was a kind of happy surprise to see that. Part of it was the way we structured it was that there would be a very minimal amount of time they would have to work in the studio and that kind of added combustion to the material and the music making. I find it really enjoyable to just watch them make music in the movie. One of my favorite documentary scenes of all time is The Rolling Stones listening to “Wild Horses” in Gimme Shelter, so that was my model of how you try to make yourself invisible enough to catch these great moments of great musicians listening to and making great music.
Can you talk about the Hyundai involvement? I didn’t really get the impression the film was a piece of marketing or an advertisement while watching it, which is a good thing.
To their credit they underwrote the film and they didn’t make any other demands of us in the making of it. It’s part of a campaign they’re doing involving the Veloster, a new car that’s coming out.
I can imagine if people see that it’s presented by Hyundai that they could get the wrong idea, but it works so well as a feature documentary and is definitely very entertaining and I never thought of the car at all.
Yeah, I think that was their idea, to pick a filmmaker and let him make a film about something they thought that their target market would find interesting. They want to support and be invovled in that kind of conversation. I was told right from the beginning there’s not going to be any car in the movie and I wouldn’t have to say anything about the car or whatever so it worked out fine for me.
We were given a budget you don’t often see for this kind of thing in the feature doc world so we put that into the screen and it was really fun. I think it goes back to what we were just talking about. What makes it so enjoyable to watch these people in the studio is you know it was filmed in a larger than life kind of way. Dollies and fine lenses and hours spent lighting that I don’t always get in a documentary. So that’s part of the fun is you’re watching spontaneous action but it’s filmed in a way that usually spontaneous action isn’t filmed in.
For more of my thoughts on Re:Generation Music Project, see last week’s Docs in Theaters column and my recent Movies.com column on documentary valentines. For theater listings, check the film’s website.