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Anyone who watched the brilliant music documentary Soundbreaking on PBS in 2016 got a compelling glimpse of the artistry of Dr. Dre and the influence of record producer Jimmy Iovine. But the vast scope of that documentary demanded that it hop around to many others in the business.
HBO’s The Defiant Ones, written and directed by Allen Hughes, spends all of its four episodes on Dre and Iovine, covering their separate lives and their “improbable partnership” together in a gripping, digestible deep dive that always remains intimate.
AIR DATE Jul 09, 2017
From the outside and at first glance you might dismiss this as a glossy ad for Apple or Beats, but there are so many jumping-off points for both men that Allen is able to tell a fascinating story about artistic influence and, as a throughline, complete and utter ambition that couldn’t be derailed.
The early years are always the most interesting in a discussion of artists because those are the combustible years, with the wandering, the doubt, the overlooked brilliance. The breaks and the rise are always more intriguing than the more well-worn famous years. And that’s true in Defiant Ones, as we become familiar with Iovine’s story of being bad at school, getting fired from jobs and probably being just one more failed search for purpose away from working on the docks like his father.
Iovine, who found an inkling of a calling at a music studio in New York, recalls being told by his boss that he needed to get in the studio immediately — on Easter Sunday — and in his family’s tight world that was the ultimate no-go. But he went. And when he got there, John Lennon was in the studio.
How badly do you want something? How much passion do you have for a job that might save you from the docks or a dream that might launch you out of the ghetto and into superstardom? The issue of transcendent drive is at the heart of Defiant Ones and, for Dr. Dre, his fascination with sound and how to make recordings (rather than be a rapper or musician out in front) is his beginning. Dre talking about how his mom’s Christmas gift to him of a sound mixer and how that is still the greatest gift ever is a nice moment in the documentary — but it derives added resonance from Verna Griffin, his mother, noting that being able to hear him in his room meant knowing that he wasn’t out on Compton’s dangerous streets. Hughes bringing in family to talk about those dynamic and important early years gives the audience a better understanding of both men and portrays them in a more vulnerable light that their fame and money otherwise shields.
While the early years — and the wonderful archival photos and film footage that reveal them — are arguably the meat of the four-part documentary, there’s no denying that ascending to fame and fortune provides the entertainment factor. Having Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks and U2 talk candidly about Iovine is certainly something to see. As is the evolution of N.W.A, then Dre’s solo career and future work with Iovine and Eminem. For music lovers of all stripes, there are plenty of intimate interviews and amazing live performances (and some rarely seen video) that make Defiant Ones fly by.
That Hughes knows both men well helps each open up. And he deserves credit for making very compelling narratives of each, separately, while meshing them in the lead-up to their famous partnership. The Defiant Ones succeeds because it realizes that while Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre might be a billionaire boy’s club now, the divergent histories of these men track the relatively early days of rock and roll and rap, illuminating how the genres cross over and alternate relevancy in pop culture. All of that makes for a sharp music documentary.
Written by: Allen Hughes, Lasse Jarvi, Doug Pray
Directed by: Allen Hughes
Premieres: Sunday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)
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