Featuring a who’s who of music stars that have crossed Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine’s paths, “The Defiant Ones” is a slick, ambitious four-part HBO documentary, charting the parallel rise and friendship of the two producers. While occasionally guilty of pushing his protagonists’ legendary reps a bit too hard, director Allen Hughes delivers a pair of Horatio Alger stories in one fascinating package.
Having spent several years working on this project, Hughes opens with the Brooklyn-born, fast-talking Iovine and Compton legend Dre entering into a $3-billion deal with Apple to acquire Beats Electronics in 2014. From there, it’s back to their more humble beginnings, with Iovine breaking into the business on Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and Dre making his name as a deejay before founding the hugely influential rap group N.W.A.
Both are credited with tenacious instincts and a golden gut, such as Iovine recognizing that the song “Because the Night,” an afterthought to Springsteen, would be a hit if Patti Smith recorded it.
Hughes (whose directing credits include the features “Menace II Society” and “From Hell” with brother Albert) has shot the documentary in a brisk, cinematic fashion, using rapid cuts between interview subjects and the musical score (which includes the theme from “The Untouchables”) to add a sense of urgency to this unfolding history.
Although the portraits are favorable, they don’t whitewash the thornier aspects of these complicated careers and lives, including Dre’s brutal assault on journalist Dee Barnes. Hughes also takes a deep dive into the violent schism that roiled the rap industry and resulted in the death of Tupac Shakur.
The history also includes an inadvertently timely thread, with the label Iovine co-founded, Interscope Records, caught up in a political firestorm during the 1990s over violent rap lyrics as its corporate parent sought approval of the Time-Warner merger. Time Warner, the parent of CNN, is currently facing its own pressures while awaiting regulatory approval for its acquisition by AT&T.
Most of all, the candid accounts provided by the likes of Springsteen, Bono, Eminem, Ice Cube, Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty and Snoop Dogg offer a testament to the two men’s musical acumen, augmented by rare or previously unseen footage of recording sessions featuring artists that they have championed.
“He’s been making me look like a f***ing genius for 12 years now,” Eminem says of Dre. Petty, meanwhile, speaks frankly about how Iovine’s romantic relationship with Nicks drove a wedge between them, personally and professionally.
Iovine is described as “brilliant” and “driven,” and Hughes bores in not only on the benefits reaped from the former but the sacrifices brought about by the latter, especially in the decisions made on the way up.
“The Defiant Ones” harbors an obvious soft spot for these big personalities, but ultimately provides an enlightening window into Iovine and Dre in particular and the big business of the music industry in general – a twin tale that’s messy, complicated, and a lesson in the talent and tradeoffs that come with building an empire.
“The Defiant Ones” will air July 9-12 at 9 p.m. on HBO.