There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your time every weekend. This week’s edition covers The Defiant Ones, which is currently streaming on HBO Now and HBO Go.
There are docs that go really deep, and there are docs that go really broad. With HBO’s new documentary, The Defiant Ones, we witness a ballsy attempt to find a happy medium for not just one subject but two: Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine. In telling the stories of these two music industry legends side by side, what you also end up with is a fascinating new angle on a massive swath of popular music’s history. Dr. Dre was one of the godfathers of west coast rap, co-creating NWA and discovering Snoop Dogg, and Jimmy Iovine cut his teeth as a producer for ‘70s rock acts before co-founding Interscope Records. It’s a bold film, told in four hour-long parts, and far and away it is one of the most unique accomplishments in its genre that I’ve seen in a very long time. It’s rare to find a subject in the music industry that solidly rides both sides of the artist / executive divide, and here we get two whose careers are a perfect model of synergistic momentum.
It would have been easy for director Allen Hughes, one half of cinematic siblings known as “the Hughes Brothers,” to bite off more than he could chew, but despite taking on such a sprawling task as this, Hughes pulls it off for the most part. Along with the main attractions of Dre and Iovine you get the added bonus of discovering just how few degrees separate Patti Smith, Foghat, Primus, Stevie Nicks, Trent Reznor, and... [record scratch] ...Rico Suave?! There are no shortage of big set-pieces from music history in here. From the Springsteen’s Born to Run studio sessions to the 1995 Source Awards, you get a full spectrum of monumental moments that these two guys played a part in over the past few decades. When they didn’t have direct control of things, the rise of file sharing for instance and the sea change it would bring to the industry, Dre and Iovine put themselves in a position to profit off what they saw as the new world order in the music industry with their Beats app and headphones, both of which would be absorbed by Apple Music for an almost inconceivable amount of money.
Structurally speaking, the narrative layers here are about as flawlessly constructed as you could ever hope for. Breaking down the rise and fall and rise of Dre and Iovine is obvious. Both are rags to riches bootstrappers who made their way through talent, luck, and sheer doggedness. They’re individual stores are staggered just so, with bits of each one’s story being parcelled out steadily enough so as to always feel fresh. The pacing allows for an embracing of big moments that are worth deeper exploration. Most importantly, Hughes and company don’t shy away from digging into touchy areas. The Dee Barnes incident, where Dre notoriously assaulted the former host of Fox’s hip-hop show Pump It Up!, is addressed head on with Barnes on hand in the form of concurrent interviews to offer her side of things which is never contested.
I can say without reservation that this is the best sounding documentary about music that I have ever seen. I was honestly a bit shocked to hear that Dre got his first leg up in the industry as a DJ by mashing up “Mr. Postman” with some techno breaks, and they end up layering stuff into the background later on in similar ways to great effect. Snoop juxtaposed with NIN beats while Reznor points out the similarities in how he and NWA both embraced shock value as an aesthetic device? Next level.
The whole four hour epic is bookended by Beats, the headphone brand that launched the duo towards the toppermost of the Forbes toppermost. For me, this is the lamest thing about the whole thing. These guys took a big risk and it paid off and for that I grant all the respect in the world. The truth of the matter, though, is that Beats have been generally reviewed only moderately for their price point and sold mainly on the fact that Dre and Iovine have leveraged their famous friends into being spokesmen and women for their product. That last fact, about the cheap marketing from musicians and athletes, is all but gleefully admitted by everyone involved, so it’s not like I’m breaking any ground pointing that out, but we can drop the pretense that they’re less an amazing wonder product and more a perfect storm of branding. These headphones are fine and all, but I’d like to think that in a world where these guys missed that boat for whatever reason this would still have been a fascinating four hours.
There’s definitely some fat that could’ve been cut from this shaggy beast, but not as much as you’d think from a four hour documentary. I would have happily signed up for another two hours of this thing, to be honest, if only to hear Dre wriggle in discomfort while discussing his “corny as fuck” Wreckin’ Cru cut “Surgery.”
Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.