HBO’s New Doco About Dr Dre, Eminem And The Rap Industry Is Perfect Television
Earlier this month, rare footage of Eminem as a scrappy young rapper went viral on Facebook. The clip is lifted from The Defiant Ones, a new four-part HBO docuseries that tracks the partnership between producers-turned-entrepreneurs Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine. After watching the full four and a half hours, JACK TREGONING suggests you do the same.
“The era of arena rap is upon us,” the New York Times declared in its 2000 review of the all-star West Coast hip-hop tour Up In Smoke. For a particular 15-year-old in faraway Australia (hi!), this came as welcome news. Like many hormonal teens coming awkwardly of age in the Y2K era, I’d shelled out my supermarket earnings for Eminem’s The Slim Shady LP and Dr. Dre’s 2001. (I still marvel sometimes that new CDs cost around $30, aka a six-hour shift at Woolies.)
My next non-negotiable purchase was the Up In Smoke Tour concert movie. While my VHS copy long ago returned to the great HMV in the sky, one part is seared in my memory. Before Dre and Snoop Dogg hit the stage for a career-spanning set, they played a seven-minute video to rile up the crowd.
It opens with the duo draped in topless (and essentially faceless) women and crescendos in a hail of bullets, as Dre and Snoop take down some liquor store robbers like a pair of proto John Wicks. The arena cheers its approval as our heroes murder the last survivor. It was a ridiculous bit of wish-fulfilment theatre before a virtuosic rap show, and I’d always hit fast-forward if Mum was around.
I thought of Dre and Snoop’s intro several times during my marathon viewing of HBO’s The Defiant Ones. Requiring nearly five hours of your couch time, it’s a forensic examination of the myths and mystique that fuelled that seven-minute video.
The series is ostensibly about the lives of two musical geniuses, Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, and the unlikely ways they intersected over four decades. For diehard fans of the music, though, it doubles as a bittersweet reminder of the years gone by.
“A Fucking Festive Italian Meal”
Director and executive producer Allen Hughes didn’t want The Defiant Ones to feel like eating your vegetables.
“I wanted to make it one big, fucking festive Italian meal,” he told Pitchfork. Hughes is definitely the man for the job: as well as shooting early Tupac videos that put him in Dre and Iovine’s orbit, he and his brother Albert directed the incendiary 1993 movie Menace II Society. His rapport with his two main subjects is key to the series’ success.
Episode one begins with Iovine and Dre as business partners in 2014, inking the sale of Beats to Apple for $3 billion. Immediately we’re reminded of Dre’s premature Facebook celebration: a pointed sign that Hughes is interested in the uncomfortable stuff too.
We then rewind to their respective childhoods (Dre in Compton, Iovine in Brooklyn) and proceed through the decades from there. Through archival footage and a host of very famous talking heads, we hear about Dre’s early days as the brilliant producer who’d go on to corral N.W.A. and Iovine’s almost-accidental studio sessions with John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith.
Episode three sees their stories finally meet: in 1992, Dre floored Iovine (who had recently co-founded Interscope Records) with the production on his album The Chronic. “This guy will define Interscope,” Iovine recalls thinking. And so began the craziest decade of both their lives, featuring rap rivalries, the devilish union of Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, Snoop Dogg’s rise to fame, and the violent deaths of Biggie and Tupac.
Back ‘N The Day
Somehow Hughes makes this sprawling, knotted story light on its feet. A lot of the magic is in the editing and sound mixing, which brings a kinetic charge to what could’ve been a straight-ahead slog.
Hughes employs a technique he calls “empathy cuts” for the talking heads, keeping the camera on an interviewee as they get settled, squirm in the seat or give a halting answer. It’s a smart way to draw unguarded moments out of media-trained superstars. There’s also terrific (and terrifically expensive) use of music throughout, like the sequence of Dre’s high-speed chase with police in 1994 soundtracked by Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Closer’.
As suggested by that viral Eminem clip, The Defiant Ones is a treasure trove of archival footage. Some of it has a real emotional heft, like Tupac in his explosive prime (his slo-mo introduction will give fans chills) and Dre coaching Eazy-E line-by-line in the studio.
The series’ generous running time also allows for scene-stealing side characters: the hilarious Alonzo Williams from World Class Wreckin’ Cru, who gave Dre his start as a DJ; the female hip-hop group J.J. Fad, who put Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records on the map; and rapper The D.O.C., whose promising career was derailed by a car accident that damaged his larynx.
The Dre And Jimmy Show
The Defiant Ones would fall down without its two magnetic protagonists.
Iovine is a blunt raconteur with well-honed powers of persuasion (“Jimmy is like a virus that enters the system uninvited,” Bono quips at one point), and his journey from wayward kid to record exec is compellingly told. However it’s Dre who’s the revelation. In his pitch to direct the series for HBO, Hughes said, “What if I told you I can get the most enigmatic hip-hop artist of all time to tell his story?”
Dre’s elusiveness (hearing his speaking voice at length is unusual in itself) makes his openness here all the more riveting. Even the things he skirts — the death of his brother Tyree, his “corny as fuck” first records and the violence he witnessed at Death Row Records — speak volumes.
The Defiant Ones also addresses something glaringly missing from the Straight Outta Compton biopic: Dre’s assault on journalist Dee Barnes in 1991. We hear the story recalled separately by Dre and Barnes in painful closeup, and you can feel the director’s quiet authority at work behind the camera.
There is of course a flipside to unprecedented access. At certain points — especially in the baggy fourth episode — the series ends up advertising, not examining, Dre and Iovine’s success. (In one scene, as Dre is recalling a painful memory on a private jet, the camera dips to his fist clenched around a cord. We then follow that cord to, you guessed it, a Beats By Dre speaker!)
Despite the valuable input of Patti Smith, Stevie Nicks and Gwen Stefani, this is also a very male story. A little too much time is spent mythologising the all-consuming work habits of powerful men in tasteful mansions, as told by patient wives, sisters and mothers.
Flaws aside, The Defiant Ones is a significant piece of work that’s as ambitious, complicated and outright entertaining as its subjects. Consider it the grown-up companion to your favourite teenage concert movie.
Jack Tregoning is a freelance writer based in New York. He is on Twitter.