Director Allen Hughes takes two music-industry figures, Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, and tells the story of the modern music industry in the fascinating, four-part HBO documentary The Defiant Ones. Initially, it seems as though the only thing the two have in common is the enormous amount of money each made in selling Dre’s Beats music company to Apple in 2014 — that’s how Hughes begins the story. Then the tale splits, and we’re taken back to the 1980s and 1990s, to be shown the rise of each man individually.
Iovine’s story is about the ambition of a young recording engineer-turned-producer who produced crucial early hits for people like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and Patti Smith. Dre’s is about a young DJ-turned-producer who pioneered the distinctive West Coast rap sound and made himself a star with the landmark 1992 album The Chronic. Both came from working-class backgrounds. Both were stubborn from the get-go in the pursuit of visions — or the sound — of music that hadn’t yet been made. Both met and became friends in moments of great success and helped carry each other to greater success.
It seems like a simple tale of two talents, but that’s only because director Hughes weaves these very different stories together so subtly, so skillfully. Filled with interviews, from Springsteen to Snoop Dogg, and loaded with archival footage of artists ranging from Tupac Shakur to Marilyn Manson at the start of their careers, The Defiant Ones demonstrates how open-minded Dre and Iovine have been as adventurous businessmen willing to risk a lot to reap huge creative and financial rewards.
This is the rare pop-culture documentary that places as much emphasis on business and capitalism as it does on art and aesthetics. Yes, The Defiant Ones — as you might guess from that title — pumps up the public images of Dre and Iovine while minimizing the negative sides of their characters and actions. And yes, the film — all four parts do indeed cohere as one long film — shies away from placing race at the forefront of many key moments. (I was struck, for example, by the way U2’s Bono praises Iovine — “There is something in him that’s attracted to rage” — in a way that, were the same words applied by someone else to Dre, would likely be received in a much less adulatory manner.)
But The Defiant Ones works on almost every level: as a primer on the music industry, as gossip, as biography, as a time capsule of the 1980s, the 1990s, and the beginning of the 21st century. Neither Iovine nor Dre is particularly eloquent about his own achievements, but The Defiant Ones does that work for them, excitingly.
The Defiant Ones airs July 9 through July 12 at 9 p.m. on HBO.
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