HBO’s The Defiant Ones is glossy and compelling, but is it much more than image-burnishing for its powerful subjects?
Four-part HBO miniseries The Defiant Ones first aired in the United States in July 2017. It was recently added to New Zealand’s Netflix site (a welcome rarity for an HBO production), where I clicked play on an indifferent evening this autumn.
The documentary follows the rise (and rise) of two disparate yet closely-affiliated music industry legends. The most famous is Andre Romelle Young, aka Dr. Dre: the sonic mastermind behind gangster-rap pioneers N.W.A., producer of zeitgeist-defining records by Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and auteur of lushly profane solo albums The Chronic (1993) and The Chronic 2001 (2000). Although still relatively obscure outside the business, his partner Jimmy Iovine is arguably the more powerful of the pair, a maverick rock producer-turned head honcho of the hugely successful Interscope Records.
The Defiant Ones, directed by Allen Hughes, one half of the brotherly duo responsible for 90s hood exploitation flicks Menace to Society and Dead Presidents, wastes no time establishing Dre and Iovine’s status as very powerful men. As the series opens, Dre and Fast and Furious actor Tyrese Gibson are caught in a 2014 Facebook video drunkenly bragging about Apple’s $3 billion acquisition of Dre and Iovine’s audio brand, Beats by Dre. This agreement is in fact not yet final, precipitating faux-suspense over whether the moment of hubris will scupper their windfall. It doesn’t. The deal goes through, making Dre and Iovine among the richest figures in the entire recording industry.
A reverence for this wealth and power is baked into the visual design of The Defiant Ones. From the outset, the viewer is dazzled by sumptuous interiors, edgeless swimming pools, eye-popping fruit platters, sunsets viewed through the windows of private jets, glistening studios and other baubles of a life at the pinnacle of popular music. In one striking, superfluous scene in the first episode, Dre stands on the deck of a launch pitching in wild seas off the Amalfi Coast, his hulking, gym-buffed figure silhouetted against a darkening sky. They’ve made it big, we get it. How they got there and what that says about the music industry and culture is the interesting part, although it’s not certain the documentary knows that.
Until the point in the early nineties when the two men’s lives intersect, The Defiant Ones adopts a linear, split narrative structure. Short sequences—often with stunningly apt archival footage—sketch the salient points of the two men’s biographies, alternating between their stories every twenty minutes or so. While superficial similarities in Dre and Iovine’s backgrounds are few, they share modest origins. Iovine was born in the waterfront industrial neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn, in 1953, to an unglamorous but stable and supportive Italian family. More than a decade younger, Dre is a second-generation product of the mid-twentieth century African-American migration to Southern California: born and raised in Compton, a once middle-class city south of Los Angeles that became a ghetto in the post-war decades.
A lithe, callow figure with hooded eyes, the young Iovine stumbles into a job at New York’s Record Plant studio. He cuts his teeth working as an engineer for Bruce Springsteen (appearing here as a controlling perfectionist) on the seminal Born to Run (1974), also having the near-transcendental experience of recording John Lennon. Despite a setback when he is fired from helming a Fog Hat album, huge success follows as a producer with Patti Smith, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Dire Straits, U2, and others. A canny behind-the-scenes play is crucial to Iovine’s ascendance: he convinces Springsteen to gift an unwanted song, ‘Because the Night’, to Smith, for whom a rewritten version becomes her biggest hit. An attempt to repeat the move partially backfires a few years later, however, when Iovine is producing Tom Petty. Possibly behind Petty’s back, Iovine takes a demo of the songwriter’s offcut ‘Stop Dragging My Heart Around’ to another client (and his girlfriend), Stevie Nicks. Petty and Nicks subsequently record the song as a duet; it becomes a hit so massive as to overshadow the success of Petty’s own single, damaging he and Iovine’s relationship. The Iovine of these years is a self-satisfied gadfly, an expert cajoler and flatterer of artists and executives, renowned for comically materialistic promises that certain tracks or artists will make whoever he’s talking to ‘a million dollars’ or buy everyone new houses. An array of luminaries interviewed—from Bono to Petty to Trent Reznor—are admiring of Iovine’s grit and hustle yet vaguely sheepish about his vulgarity.
By contrast, Dre is softly spoken and humble—a tad boring, even. His beginnings in the industry are less auspicious. At a tender age, he starts DJing at Eve After Dark, a local nightclub with a black yuppie vibe. Its owner, the seedy Alonzo Williams, assembles an in-house group called The World Class Wrecking Crew, a preening, exuberant gang of syncopated dancers and hype men decked out in spandex jumpsuits. Their goofy flamboyance is a far cry from the dour ‘gangsta’ image born a few years later with the advent of N.W.A. The documentary, to its credit, is relatively honest regarding the amoral image-making at the heart of the music industry—Dre and his confederates seem relatively unabashed about the incongruity of their transition from Jheri-curled party boys to scowling ghetto caricatures in the space of a few years.
While at times unashamedly hagiographic, The Defiant Ones is not entirely uncritical of Dre and Iovine, both of whom appear to have genuinely grown as artists and people in the course of their long careers. Now in his seventh decade, Iovine has a frank sense of humor about the arrogance and controlling nature of his younger self. Dre is equally matter-of-fact about some of his own shortcomings, in particular, a weakness for alcohol and early lack of attention to the business side of music. The pair also deserves praise for their philanthropy, most notably a recent joint donation of tens of millions of dollars of personal wealth to establish a performing arts high school in Dre’s native South Central Los Angeles.
There is, however, a dark side to Dre’s biography which The Defiant Ones does not attempt to hide as much as elide within its narrative of self-actualization. In 1991, while intoxicated at a party, Dre launched a sickening, barely-proved physical attack on the female MTV personality Dee Barnes. It’s a shocking, ugly incident and one that the documentary treats seriously, but bookends with bromides about personal evolution spouted by both perpetrator Dre and (curiously) victim Barnes. Not mentioned in the documentary at all are the allegations of former recording artist and Dre girlfriend Michel’le that he physically abused her throughout their relationship, suggesting that mistreatment of women may have been the pattern rather than an aberration during his early life. He appears to now be a changed man, in a loving marriage since 1996 to elegant, steely wife, Nicole.
As the episodes move closer to the present, well worn music-biz stories provide a slew of dramatic highlights (the deadly East-West Coast rap feud of the 90s, the game-changing arrival of Napster; the unexpected, meteoric rise of Eminem). While it is interesting to hear these tales from the horse’s mouths, the most compelling moments in The Defiant Ones, are intimate glimpses of the recording process, the grind and the joy of creation. Moving grainy footage shows Iovine and Stevie Nicks dancing in the studio to the just-cut ‘Edge of Seventeen’, while exuberant female hip-hop group JJ Fad is seen evidently having a great time in the studio while recording their debut with Dre. The documentary is particularly attentive to Dre’s notoriously obsessive commitment to capturing the perfect sound, a fastidiousness that has resulted in many artists, most famously Gwen Stefani, breaking down during his recording sessions. One memorable sequence towards the end of the series captures a gin-fuelled yet nonetheless pedantic night of vocal laying for the soundtrack album Compton (2015).
More problematic is the documentary’s recounting of ‘historic’ deals and events in which Dre and Iovine were involved, often bordering on petty and self-serving. Several media executives whom Iovine appears to have got the best of are treated cruelly, despite cooperating with the documentary—notably TVT Records boss Steve Gottlieb, who penned a trenchant riposte in Billboard to Iovine’s and Trent Reznor’s portrayal in The Defiant Ones of events surrounding the renegotiation of Nine Inch Nails’ contract to partner with Interscope early in their career. The culpability of Iovine and other industry figures in enabling the moronic and tragic rap beef that contributed to Shakur’s death is also minimized and they are rather laughably spun as hapless victims of circumstance rather than profit partners in a culture of violence. A focus on commerce rather than art makes the series’ fourth episode is by far its weakest, spending an inordinate time on the shallow, dreary business of marketing personal electronics as Dre and Iovine build their late-career headphone retail empire. It begins to seem little more than an extended advertorial for the Beats—Apple corporate behemoth.
Overall, The Defiant Ones is a compelling watch recommended to anyone with an interest in the history of popular music. It’s also a timely reminder of the vibrancy and excesses of the recording industry at its commercial zenith during the late 80s and 90s. In many ways, however, the documentary lacks the critical distance, from the art, commerce and personal foibles of its subjects to be much more than a shiny exercise in legacy padding.