HBO’s ‘The Defiant Ones’ Is A Fascinating, Warts-And-All Portrait Of Dr. Dre And Jimmy Iovine

Early in The Defiant Ones, Allen Hughes’ panoramic four-part documentary about Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine premiering Sunday on HBO, there’s a clear sign that this won’t be a puff piece about two of the music industry’s most powerful titans.

The film opens with a business deal that when finalized will make Dre and Iovine very rich men: Apple has agreed to purchase their company Beats for a cool $3.2 billion, though due diligence requires holding off on an official announcement. Then, disaster strikes: news of the deal leaks online via an ill-timed Facebook post. Suddenly, the payday is in jeopardy, and Hughes’ cameras are there to capture all of it.

Without spoiling what happens next, let’s just say that Hughes doesn’t shy away from exposing other potentially embarrassing pieces of information about Dre and Iovine in the intervening four hours of The Defiant Ones — the divorces, the arrests, the commercial flops, Dre’s infamous assault of TV personality Dee Barnes in 1991. All of it is addressed with uncommon candidness.

But Hughes’ warts-and-all approach ultimately is in service of an admiring portrait of two men who came from inauspicious backgrounds to build separate empires, and then partnered together in the ’90s to become even richer and more powerful. Along the way, Dre and Iovine manage to intersect with many of the most notable figures from the last 40 years of music: Bruce Springsteen, Eminem, Bono, Snoop Dogg, Tom Petty, Ice Cube, Stevie Nicks, and David Geffen represent just part of The Defiant Ones’ impressive cast.

For Hughes, who is best known for directing the iconic ’90s films Menace II Society and Dead Presidents with his brother, Albert, The Defiant Ones was an all-consuming project that took several years, and nearly all of his inner strength, to complete.

“It was absolutely 100 percent difficult to maintain a filmmaker’s control over this thing,” Hughes says. “Those guys are artists themselves, and they’re the greatest champion of artists. So there was never a problem in that area at all. The difficulty was they are who they are. And they’re still in action. It’s not like they’re retired or dead.”

One of the stories you tell in this film is, in a way, about the death of the music industry. The first three parts are about all of the great things these moguls did in music, and the fourth part is about them transitioning out of music and selling headphones via Beats By Dre. And that made me sad. It’s a testimony to the business acumen of Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, that they could make that pivot, but the larger story feels tragic to me. Did you sense the movie going in that direction when you were making it?

Dre still records. People don’t know this: Dre records every day. Literally, he’s in there recording songs every day. He’s like Picasso in that way. He’s always painting. Right now he’s producing, in the 11th hour, a track for Eminem’s latest album. So Dre’s still real active in music, you know? But I hear what you’re saying. It’s the truth.

You know they just dropped this Prince album, this deluxe Purple Rain, which I’m just been enjoying since it came out. And I’m listening to it without looking at my device, without having a TV on, without doing Instagram or Twitter. I’m just sitting in a dark room, listening to the album all the way through. That died. That’s a wrap. That’s never coming back.

The first few installments of The Defiant Ones have parallel narratives set in two very different eras. Iovine made his name working with John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Petty in the ’70s, while Dre came up in the gangsta rap era of the late ’80s and early ’90s. On paper, Iovine’s story and Dre’s story should be compatible, and yet it makes sense seeing them juxtaposed when you watch the movie. How did you make that work?

Definitely we had to figure out. We had jokes in the editing room, like, as juvenile as this: Dr. Dre is Michael Corleone and Jimmy’s The Godfather. What I mean by Michael Corleone is, he’s not a businessman. Michael Corleone was in the military, and eventually he’s gotta come into this family business, you know?

For me, where I personally connected to the narrative, there were so many things. I’m like, “Wow, Jimmy and Dre both slipped through the cracks of the public school system.” I mean, I dropped out of high school, and I went and got my GED, which is so typical. And we got lucky. How did we get lucky? I wondered how to figure that out. It was a bittersweet process, you know?

That hadn’t occurred to me when I was watching the movie, but you had a similar start in the business, where you were working at a young age. It seems like Jimmy and Dre’s story felt personal to you.

It did. I didn’t know that going in, though, and that’s part of the reason why it was the most painful project I ever worked on. I dealt with agony and ecstasy, you know? And I dealt with deep depression while I was making this one, too. And I didn’t know that’s what it was. I was like, “Oh, shit! I’m going through this!” [Laughs.] I wasn’t conscious of it, you know? But I’m pouring it all into the film. I’m putting it all into the film sometimes very consciously, sometimes unconsciously.

Both guys saw some rough things coming up, and experienced some rough things coming up, as I did. But I was fortunate enough to have a great mother. Dre had a great grandmother and mother, and when Dre was 16 and became a DJ, there were people in the neighborhood who were tough guys that were protecting him, and making sure that he never had to deal with shit that other kids had to deal with. That’s what few people know. And Jimmy was the same way. And I had that too. At a very early age, at 12 years old when we started making movies and we were in a pretty rough neighborhood. Great mother but we walk outside and it’s crack cocaine, gang-bangin’, you know? What people forget about those rough neighborhoods, any ghetto, there’s one thing: There’s a kingpin in every ghetto. You know, there is order. And in each ghetto, the kingpin immediately identifies what kid should not be touched or should be protected, and I related to that as well.

Dr. Dre has seems like a pretty guarded person. But you get him to to open up to an unprecedented degree. How did you do that?

That took 25 years. Knowing him. That’s what it took. We met each other in ’91 on an N.W.A. video set. And he was very kind to me, and I was just a teenager. We had a 27-year relationship before we worked together. We’ve always tried to work together over the years, and it would never work out. And then six years ago, we did a music video with Eminem called “I Need A Doctor.” And it just was an “a-ha!” moment for both of us. We just really bonded, you know? We were always friendly, but we became friends. Real friends. He would ask me, “Do you think my life would make a good biography?” And it’s like, “Would it? You lived the life of 10 men!” I mean, shit! And that’s how it started.

Did you have the idea to also do Iovine right away?

No. It started as a Dre documentary.

How did the film evolve into a double profile?

I called the head of HBO. And I said, “What if I was to tell you I can get the most enigmatic artist in the history of hip-hop to open up about his life?” And the president of HBO said “Who?” And I said, “Dr. Dre.” And he said, “Green light.” I’ve never heard a green light in a room, let alone over the phone. Like, it was that quick: “Green light.”

He goes, “We have one problem, though.” I said, “What’s the problem?” He says, “Jimmy Iovine just walked out of here, and we just greenlit a documentary about Interscope Records.” I said, “I’ll call you right back!” [Laughs.]

One of my favorite documentaries of all-time is called The Battle Over Citizen Kane. It’s about two prodigies. One is William Randolph Hearst of Hearst Castle and the newspaper fortune, and one is Orson Welles. And it tells a parallel story, [about how] both men’s mothers doted on them and they were both, like I said, prodigies. It builds to this moment where they meet and they destroy each other. They’re both never the same after the film Citizen Kane is made. So I said, “Oh my God, it’s the same story!” Except these guys don’t destroy each other.

You interviewed Dee Barnes, and Dre addresses the 1991 assault with a thoroughness that’s striking after Straight Outta Compton was criticized for not even mentioning it. Was it difficult to get Dre to talk about that?

No, because going in, that was the number one thing he had to deal with. And that was before the Straight Outta Compton film. The sad thing for me, that was hurtful for me, was that we had already shot him dealing with it and finally opening up about it and apologizing. We had it in the can for a year before it erupted again with the Straight Outta Compton thing. So to sit there and watch… I just felt bad. I felt bad for both Dee, especially. And I felt bad for Dre, because he had already sat down and opened up about it. And he was just getting crucified. But more importantly, it was her I felt bad about. I had to keep [Dre’s interview] a secret from her, and that hurt me.

You said earlier that you had a hard time during the making of this movie. Was it related to the movie, or was that just other stuff going in your life?

It was both. I would say I’m a Method director and always have been. Always become what I’m doing, you know? And with this one, I became it. So it was seven days a week. No time off ever. And even when there was time off, it was an intense process creatively with my partner Doug Pray. And it was intense for Jimmy and Dre.

You’re living the movie, [and] you’re learning the lessons of the movie while you’re making it. If your family, or your woman, or your spouse… I wasn’t married at the time, but I lost my relationship over this. And not because I was wrong, or she was wrong. It’s just that if you don’t have someone that understands right now you have to be this focused on this thing … My mother is amazing, because she’s an amazing businesswoman. She protects me, you know? But I’ve never had to go in this hard. So I went in hard, and by the way, I’ve gotta tell you: I’ve lost about three friends. Three dear friends. Not by death, but they just couldn’t be there for me for some reason, you know? And they’re not here as friends anymore. And that was painful.

Again, you look at the movie: You see what it takes to push something, and push and push and push, and try to push the medium. At the end of the day, you can never know if people love it or hate it, but I always go after respect. I just want them to respect it, so I try to push the medium and see what I can do with it that’s different.