‘The Defiant Ones’ Highlights the Synergistic Partnership of Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine
Ever since the release of the 2015 N.W.A biopic “Straight Outta Compton,” the mythology surrounding Dr. Dre has reached Brian Wilson-level proportions – and rightly so. Like The Beach Boys’ savant, his singular vision and gifted ear for melody, harmony and timbre changed the face of music. The movie also demonstrated his beleaguered ascent to superstardom, especially in a scene where Dre is attempting to shop his 1992 debut “The Chronic” with little success. When no other labels are willing to bite, one seasoned executive looks Dre in the eyes and says, “Listen. I don’t know anything about hip-hop, but I know that this is special.” But what’s beyond the purview of “Straight Outta Compton” is that that particular record executive, Jimmy Iovine, was every bit as visionary as Dr. Dre. With fascinating detail and flowing narrative grace, the HBO documentary miniseries “The Defiant Ones” chronicles how these two gifted music and business luminaries join forces to take the world by storm.
Wisely, the documentary tells both men’s stories simultaneously, drawing attention to the numerous parallels between their lives. Though neither was really given a fair shot, both used scrappy determination to find success in the music industry and took full advantage of whatever meagre opportunities they were given. For instance, Iovine worked his way up from sweeping the floors at the Record Plant in New York all the way to engineering and producing albums by John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Nicks. Nearly a decade later, Dr. Dre snuck up on stage so that he could DJ at Eve After Dark, his back door into spinning with the World Class Wreckin’ Cru.
Once their timelines finally sync up in episode three, their first meeting is just as fated as its portrayal in “Straight Outta Compton” made it seem. “The Defiant Ones” also follows the story from Iovine’s perspective, however, a former platinum-selling producer who’s looking for the next generation of hitmakers to sign to his fledgling Interscope Records. In addition to Dre, he lures Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor with the promise of total artistic freedom and the ability to sign artists to his own vanity label. Reznor’s first signing is Marilyn Manson, which is soon paying huge dividends; meanwhile, Dre is establishing Death Row as the new home of hip hop with Snoop Dogg, Warren G, and eventually Tupac. And all because of Iovine’s vision…
One of the strengths of the documentary, though, is that it not only valorizes their drive and intuition, but also shows the problematic role that their workaholic tendencies play in their lives. This is best illustrated by a scene toward the end of the series where we finally witness Dre at work in the studio. He starts to rap a line, but abandons it halfway through with a dissatisfied groan. Line by line, he starts and stops at little fudges that would no doubt go unnoticed by casual listeners. This obsessive process continues for hours until he finally has enough to splice together the take he wants. And when he presses play on “Compton’s” leadoff single, “Talking to My Diary,” you can instantly tell that it’s worth every fraught, gut-wrenching second that it takes for him to create such inspired music.
By demonstrating the duality of each man, the show transcends ordinary hero worship and becomes a three dimensional character study, albeit of two different characters. The fact that they both create and think with such unabashed passion makes their flaws that much more interesting, revelatory, and human. And their circuitous path to finding one another makes their synergistic meeting all the more rewarding when we finally see it unfold – that alone is worth the price of admission.
“The Defiant Ones” premiers on HBO Sunday, July 9 at 9 p.m. ET and is available via On Demand, HBO.com, HBO Now and HBO Go.