Television review: The Defiant Ones (HBO documentary)
Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, featured in HBO’s documentary “The Defiant Ones” (promotional photo: HBO)
The HBO television network changed the landscape of TV programming for the better and for many years has offered innovative, well-written, and imaginative shows and documentaries that leave the cliché plagued series of the established networks in the dust. Its latest triumph is The Defiant Ones, a four-part documentary series, directed by Allen Hughes, covering the long careers of former music producer turned music mogul, Jimmy Iovine, and rapper, Andre Romelle Young, better known as Dr. Dre.
In his book series, Parallel Lives written in the second century AD, the historian Plutarch gives a biography of a Roman politician, general, or famous, personality and offers a corresponding history of someone from ancient Greece in an effort to expose their moral and ethical similarities, and examine their triumphs and failures in tandem. In The Defiant Ones, we similarly get a rendering of two men from extremely different backgrounds, but unlike those written about by Plutarch, these two lives eventually come together and intersect in the most unexpected ways. What stands out to me as the defining parallel quality of both men, each of whom approach music and its industry from different vantage points, is their unflagging commitment to artistry, stripped away from any monetary or social gain. Both have unrelenting pure visions of what comprises great music and neither is willing to compromise their ideals, often risking ruin toe hold fast to their creative principles.
The series offers incredible footage and photographs from the early careers of both Iovine and Dr. Dre, and Allen Hughes was able to procure interviews with many of the main players throughout their lives, including Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Pattie Smith, Stevie Nicks, and Trent Reznor for Iovine, and rappers such as Ice Cube, Sean Combs, Eminem, and Snoop Dogg for Dr. Dre. A host of behind-the-scenes music industry executives and business managers as well as friends and family also weigh in on the parts they played in this incredible musical odyssey. It is striking that all of the famous Rock ‘N’ Roll and pop personalities come across as genuine and emotional in describing how Iovine has one relentless, driving mission in his intersection with them: to find a way for them to best realize their artistic vision and get their work out to as many people as possible so that their audiences think about their work and enjoy it. The number of artists Iovine discovered and directed to success is astounding.
I am less familiar with the work of Dr. Dre and know much of his history from news stories here and there, from such films as Straight Outta Compton. Compton is a undeniably a great movie, but Dr. Dre’s story, as told in The Defiant Ones, actually inspired me as a composer and musician and in my modest efforts in music recording. Dr. Dre is a perfectionist in the recording studio, demanding and expecting excellence from himself and the artists he works with. I have to admit that I’ve never cared for rap or hip-hop, but on occasion I do see the art and beauty of it, especially in terms of its production values. There is an early film montage of Dr. Dre, pre-fame, masterfully DJing in his native Compton area, where he plays the classic girl group song “Mr. Postman.” I never liked or appreciated that sound before, but he does it not only to perfection, but with obvious respect for the original recording. It was that very show that launched Dr. Dre’s start in the business, since the club owner booked him for future gigs.
In Plutarch’s Lives, there are examples of famous Romans and Greeks who either fell as victims of their character flaws or triumphed over them. Straight Outta Compton glossed over Dr. Dre’s history of violence with women, but it is depicted in The Defiant Ones. It was interesting to see Dee Barnes, a hip-hop journalist, interviewed as an authority on the rap history timeline and then revealed to be one of the women who were assaulted by Dr. Dre in the past. Although Dr. Dre apologized at length for his past horrific actions, having realized it was something terrible that he had done and that he will always have to live with, viewers will certainly take note of his past pattern of inexcusable and downright awful, violent behavior. Iovine also struggled with how he handled the escalation of violence between East and West Coast rap recording artists, many of whom were tied to him and Dr. Dre. At its worst, the violence actually descended into murder. There are incredible interviews at this point in the series with Sean Combs and Snoop Dogg that are emotional and chilling, and the story of Tupac Shakur’s demise is recounted in depth.
One of the great anecdotes in the series describes the origin of the wildly popular Beats by Dre. After his divorce, Iovine felt lost and was floundering as he wandered on a beach one afternoon when Dr. Dre saw him from his balcony and waved for him to come up for a chat. Dr. Dre explained to Iovine that he was getting approached for endorsements but didn’t want to cheaply put his name on sneakers, etc. Iovine brilliantly suggests designing headphones with high-quality sound, an idea that would be right up Dr. Dre’s alley. They went on to found Beats Electronics in 2006, and after carefully crafting and tastefully marketing their product, which was sold to Apple in 2014 for $3 billion. In May 2013, they donated a $70 million endowment to the University of Southern California to create the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology, and the Business of Innovation.
Throughout their extensive interviews in the show, Dr. Dre and Iovine never come across in with them in the show as pretentious or egotistically struck by their own success or stardom; Iovine has great comedic timing. I’ve always found Dr. Dre to be a brooding, soulful presence and though he has a lot of screen time in this series, he retains an air of mystery, professionalism, and magic. There is a fantastic shot of him in part four of the series where he hovers like a Zen master over a huge recording studio console.
The Defiant Ones inspires one to stay true to oneself and to one’s vision of life, whether it be as an artist or just in retaining a set of uncompromising positive values and to remain steadfast when these values are challenged.