Review: HBO's 'The Defiant Ones' Is a Cautionary Tale Disguised as Hagiography
Everyone has certain genres of entertainment that bypass rational thought and drive deep into primal passions. “Documentaries about how pieces of pop culture are produced” is such a genre for me. I’m the kind of guy that buys Blu-Rays for the extras, has seen every episode of Classic Albums multiple times, and sometimes prefers watching how the lights for a concert are rigged rather than the concert itself. Learning how really creative people make the impossible look easy is a thirst I can’t fully slake, so it makes sense that I devoured HBO’s latest documentary The Defiant Ones with relish.
While occasionally falling into the trap of “let’s talk about misunderstood geniuses whose shortcomings will be glossed over in favor of their successes,” The Defiant Ones justifies its nearly five-hour length by taking its time in documenting how Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine wound their respective ways towards one other by blazing independent-yet-related trails to the top of the music industry. Director Allen Hughes doesn’t have to invent any artificial Behind The Music-esque conflict to make these backstories interesting, as both men were lightning rods not just for creative excellence but also controversy.
If you have even a passing knowledge of the past 25 years, many of the stories told in The Defiant Ones will be familiar. But it’s the new angles, footage, and interviews about those events that makes this documentary essential, even for those who thought they knew all the angles. The adage that “history is told by the winners” holds somewhat true here, but it’s the way in which even their vanquished “foes” show up to essentially pay homage to their innovation, tenacity, and sheer force of will that prevents this from being a one-sided story. Iovine in particular comes across as The Last Man You Would Ever Want To Deal With, not because he’s overtly cruel, but rather because he’s always two steps ahead of everyone with whom he engages. Many of the talking heads in The Defiant Ones end up wistfully seeing the big picture in retrospect that Iovine could see years ahead.
Hughes deploys a striking use of editing throughout the talking head segments, often putting Dre and Iovine in the hot seat as others accuse them of unsavory activities. He will frame their silent poker faces for an uncomfortable amount of time, painting the two titans as unable or unwilling to discuss the topic at hand. Other times, Hughes will use certain phrases or even syllables across multiple interviews to dramatize the relentlessness that both men employed to get both themselves and their labels ahead, and how that drive embedded itself into the artists who flourished under them. These tricks build and build throughout the running time, gaining power through repetition and accumulation, not unlike a great hook that you have memorized by the time you’ve listened to a song for the first time.
There’s a cacophony of famous faces that both appreciate and resent the fact that they are not the actual subject of this documentary. “Ambition” is hardly an original angle to take when crafting a rock doc, but as the installments of The Defiant Ones go on, it’s harder and harder to see the ambition of Dre and Iovine as healthy. Their respective paths from financial struggle to billion-dollar portfolios is held up as an example of “The American Dream,” but more than one person in the documentary notes that this dream is only reserved for a few individuals who probably need to sacrifice more than anyone should to achieve it. The drives of these men transform from “superhuman” to “undoubtedly destructive,” with Dre’s meticulousness driving himself, as well as everyone around him, absolutely bonkers by the end. For his part, Iovine successfully navigates his way through the Napster Era by forging a partnership with Apple, but has no physical or psychological idea about how to stop and enjoy this success. What has been achieved doesn’t matter. What has yet to be achieved is all that does.
All of this comes together in the third installment, a whopper that might rank up with my favorite episodes of TV in 2017 when it’s all said and done. (Yes, The Defiant Ones is almost five hours long, but the four installments feel like logical, self-contained segments rather than a five-hour film arbitrarily slashed and spread out.) The third episode depicts the madness both at Interscope Records and America in the early-to-mid ’90s, and it’s a chilling reminder of both how insane that era was and how today’s current insanity has plenty of recent precedents we all too easily forget. The frantic nature of those years, coupled with the frantic nature of the music it produced (not just by the East Coast/West Coast rap feud, but also Interscope artists like Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson), coupled with Hughes’ frantic, almost hallucinatory editing produces the effect of stepping into hell itself. Dre and Iovine tapped into that seedy psyche of America, and for once, The Defiant Ones doesn’t let them off the hook for their part in it. Iovine could see almost everything a mile ahead of everyone else, but he didn’t see any of that coming. (“Am I funding free speech or Hamas?” he asked his ex-wife at one point, long after he had any ability to change the outcome of what had been set in motion.)
As noted at the outset, there are some places in which The Defiant Ones seemingly backs off when it could have dug in deeper. Dre’s assault of Dee Barnes gets about five minutes in total, and his apology is more about the man he was versus how it changed him today. The fact that this wasn’t something that completely undid his career is never really explored, nor what it means for the biggest sports celebrities in the world to wear his headphones on national television. (Full confession: I own a pair of those headphones as well. It’s not something I thought about when I bought them, but it’s something I now wrestle with having been reminded of the incident in this documentary.) The assault is treated as one of the many things in Dre’s checkered past, but it IS fundamentally different, even if The Defiant Ones (and let’s face it, Dre’s career and current success) doesn’t treat it as such.
As such, The Defiant Ones can be seen as cautionary tale disguised as hagiography. Both men have achieved unprecedented success through isolation. Even though they surround themselves constantly with other people, they are truly alone when it comes to what they want to achieve. Iovine talks at one point about being a racehorse with blinders on, unwilling to see things in periphery in order to simply focus on the task ahead. We the consumers get to enjoy the fruits of that pursuit, but it’s never clear if they do. Both men are married, but their wives (past and present) seem to understand they have married a business more than an individual. Both men have the respect of the entire industry, but some like Eminem simply want Dre to stop obsessing about the perfect snare drum sound and just produce the long-awaited record “Detox” already. Perfect isn’t just the enemy of good for these men: It’s the enemy of greatness, and that enmity both drives them and keeps them from ever stopping. Most see the world in three dimensions, and Dre/Iovine are looking at through The Matrix. That makes them special, but also separates them from everyone else in a fundamental way.
For anyone who thinks they are the only ones who see the world for what it is, that’s a harrowing place to see someone else inhabit.
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