What Did 'The Defiant Ones' Show Us?
A four-part, nearly five-hour documentary film that began airing on HBO earlier this month, The Defiant Ones functions as a quintessentially modern-American bildungsroman. Its broadcaster describes it as "a master class in how to work your way up from the bottom to beyond your wildest dreams." But stories like these — here, of the hip-hop legend Dr. Dre, born Andrew Young, and the record producer and music executive Jimmy Iovine — never are. If one possesses the talent and drive, they don't need to take notes. It might even be counterproductive.
Dre and Iovine each became rich, successful and famous through their contributions to the historical record of pop music, then immeasurably more so after combining forces. Director Allen Hughes spent three years shadowing the pair to create The Defiant Ones — nearly exactly the time between now and when their company, Beats, was purchased by Apple for $3 billion. (That deal seems to have been not only the catalyst for the project, but also maybe its reason for existence.) Hughes spent unknowable amounts of time combing through the personal video archives they'd made available to him — at the cost, maybe, of some directorial concessions, or at least sheen — as well as plumbing history for deftly employed contextual material, such as shots of U.S. Senate testimonies and television interviews.
It begins — after that deal-signing — first with Iovine, born in Red Hook, Brooklyn in 1953, and then with Dre, born in Compton, California in 1965. Their gravitational pull toward each other forms the arc of the project's first two episodes, the airings of which generated their own headlines from the historical nuggets they revealed. (Patti Smith ignoring Springsteen's composition of "Because the Night" for some time, simply because Iovine had brought it to her, before writing its lyrics in a single sitting; Iovine doing the same maneuver between Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks, to Petty's continued annoyance; Dre teaching Eazy-E how to rap; paintball guns passed off as authentic in N.W.A interviews... you trip over them.)
The Defiant Ones is nothing if not entertaining, shot slick and edited sharp; it's no chore for anyone seeking a chaperoned visitor's pass to music history. Hughes often lingers on one talking-head interviewee as they listen and react to the testimony of another, an often funny and narratively useful way of weaving his story through like a novelist. Cut throughout with prized, rare footage, Hughes painted his picture, however narrow its lanes, in vibrant shades. The social context of the pair's work, Dre's particularly, is paramount — without their controversies and perpendicularities, there would be no Dre and Iovine or TV mega-miniseries. A sequence in the third episode — about which Hughes said: "If you can process all of that in one sitting, you're a f****** certifiable genius, because I can't" — becomes the fulcrum on which their story turns. It's the moment where the art being made and that art's public artifice are smashed together instead of just displayed, as with the paintball guns.
In a swirling kaleidoscope the sequence, soundtracked by Marilyn Manson's indelibly gorgeous and so-very-of-its-moment hit single "The Beautiful People," encapsulates the spark of controversy around gangsta rap's coastal feud, Manson's late-'90s terrifying of America, the outcry over this seeming cultural upheaval, and the businessmen (there were no female executives in the film) that orchestrated it all.
That last is the real story the project tells — the journey from creator to curator to mogul, from ripples to waves and the money that follows. (Iovine showed his cards early in this regard. After his initial proximity to John Lennon and the grueling time he spent with Springsteen, he says: "The first project I produced: Foghat. I did it for the money. At the time, you get paid three points to be a producer, and their last album sold 4 million. So I immediately said, '20 cents a record... that's $800,000!' I'm getting $10 an hour as an engineer. I'm like, 'I'm in.'" He was fired.)
Imagine a zoomed-in picture of a clockworks; you see only two gears turning. Then it backs up a bit, to six gears. And on, until the full works, gears and springs and rivets and pendulums, are visible. But something wears out. For Iovine, you get the sense that he replaces these parts because of a need for the gears to keep turning; to see everything working. Dre seems to need these things so that he can watch the clock face spin. The Defiant Ones is not only a story of talent and drive, but of this zooming out, where you can see the gears of the industry — artists — become parts in a whole, subsidiaries. It happened to Iovine first (and in his case, maybe immediately), then Dre, then Trent Reznor, then Eminem. The further each gets from the creative, the bigger the picture that comes into view.
By the end, after Marilyn Manson and Tupac and Eminem and 50 Cent and Beats and Apple, you wonder what could be next? And then Kendrick Lamar — a bona fide superstar now — is on screen, young and brilliant. Still zoomed in.
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