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HBO’s The Defiant Ones Is About Much More Than Music and Hip-Hop

By Kim Owens, Liz Graves

In 1958, the New York Times ran a review of the film, The Defiant Ones, starring Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier, “a remarkably apt and dramatic visualization of a social idea – the idea of men of different races brought together to face misfortune in a bond of brotherhood,” wrote Times film critic, Bosley Crowtherehoward Thompson. Curtis and Poitier played two escaped convicts that despised each other, but with a unified goal of fleeing for freedom and literal metaphor of being shackled together, “These two men, who think they are so profoundly different, are in basic respects the same.”

Almost 60 years later, the new HBO docu-series, set to air July 9, shares not only the title of The Defiant Ones, but this time it centers on the real-life story of how two men of different races, Andre “Dr. Dre” Young and Jimmy Iovine, each with their own musical skill sets and legacy, jointly built both a hugely successful record label and an entertainment tech company.

Speaking at the Q&A following the sneak peek screening of Part 1 of The Defiant Ones at the Vista Theatre last week, Iovine stated a key point being made by the series, “A white and a black guy became partners and built a gigantic company,” which caused a loud applause to ripple throughout the venue. He continued to explain how this unique union was one of the core reasons for the success of Interscope Records and Beats Electronics, where they brought “two different cultures together, and worked side by side, and were equal partners.”

Part 1 of the series goes into the early days of the partnership, as Iovine learns of Dre’s producing skills after hearing the demo of The Chronic, recalling how to him, it was a mashup of Spector’s big sound and the finesse of Stg. Pepper, something that at that time, was unique to the hip-hop and rap sound. He knew he was destined to partner with Dre, and that was solidified with the merger of Iovine’s Interscope Records and Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment record label. The two would go on to take hip-hop into the mainstream and to the world, launching Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, and 50 Cent from the college radio circuit into the Billboard charts.


Iovine recalls their mutual determination to make it all succeed, “Okay, we’re going to do this together regardless of what anybody else said, no matter what we think, what we hear, and we’re gonna build this company.”

Aside from the sheer growth of Interscope and its money-making, risk-taking model, their next venture, Beats Electronics, would put them in the two-for-two business venture class. Iovine again credits their differences as much as their similarities as the winning formula, “Think about how few companies are built in America by a white and a black guy, or a white and a black woman. Companies are not built like that. How unfortunate, because the cultures really blend and they really offer each other something.”

The Defiant Ones unfolds to the time Iovine and Dre experienced a “the best of times, the worst of times” moment in their history. In May of 2014, M&A talks were underway between Apple and Beats, and we all know how secret those merger conversations can be, let alone with one of the most secret-oriented companies in the tech industry. The hundreds of us in the audience see Dr. Dre and actor Tyrese Gibson, big as life on the theater screen, celebrating the buyout before things were signed on the dotted line, thus leaking news of the $3.2 billion dollar acquisition with a drunken, bragging video that appeared on Facebook.

We also see Iovine’s reaction to a really, really, REALLY bad move on Dre’s part, which to the viewer, was fucking hilarious in an “Oh, shit!” way. I think I can safely say that for most of us, any amount of walk of shame and drunken antics ever resulted in blowing a 3.2 billion dollar deal, but in this context it was a lesson that even the most profoundly savvy business people don’t always make the most savvy of decisions 100 percent of the time.

Thankfully, Young and Iovine were able to breathe a huge sigh of relief as Apple still gave them the green light. Because, you know, it’s these guys and Beats had what Apple wanted it all. That was one of many funny moments captured by director Allen Hughes (Menace II Society), with anecdotes delivered uniquely and honestly by other players in this musical history/business class, from Snoop Dogg and, to Eminem, Patti Smith, and Bono. Hughes also showcased the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to people doing business with people, their strengths and their vulnerabilities; qualities that exist within everyone while highlighting the differences in how they use both these traits within the foundation of mutual trust.


Unique camera work was used for storytelling, as both Iovine and Bruce Springstein tell their sides of the story of the making of Born to Run in a way that the two are almost talking to each other; Springstein sits in a studio as Iovine’s voice over explains the NJ musician’s perfectionistic ways, and Iovine sits in the same way as Springstein tells his side of the story. Many stills were used, as is common in documentaries, but the depth of field transitions, especially of Iovine in the production studio with large dark circles under his eyes having spent several days without sleep, told their own tales without words.

While Part 1 sets the stage for how each iconoclast got their start and cultivated their decades-long partnership, Part 2 dives deeper into their individual career developments, with Dre hitting a fork in the road with N.W.A. and Easy-E, and Iovine reaching producer burnt out. Part 3 spotlights the two-sided sword of success for rap music in America and the internal feuds between east coast and west coast while putting Iovine in the defiant role of defending his business stance for Interscope.

The finale in Part 4 is yet another shift in both careers and in the music industry, as Dre goes back to producing by playing a large role in Eminem’s breakout debut, and Iovine sees the writing on the wall with the MP3. We learn the first-account backstory on how the two launched their next venture and taking the Beats Electronics brand worldwide, as The Defiant Ones comes full circle to the Apple acquisition and their present day successes.

During the Q&A Iovine also makes mention of another point made in the docu-series, about how he used the element of fear as a tailwind, not a crosswind, to propel his career from one stage to the next. Being self-taught in each life chapter, the Red Hook, Brooklyn native just kept at it with bulldog-esque tenacity and sponge-learned along the way, taking risks and making decisions in an almost brash fashion, having little tolerance for decisions by committee and laboring over the right thing to do. If something wasn’t working, you nip it in the bud and go in a different direction, a practice most often used in the startup world but not seen often in technology conglomerates or the risk-averse music industry.

“There’s a lot of fear in the world; a lot of anxiety. It’s like anything else, once you…if you can conquer it – it’s gonna come again tomorrow – but if you learn to kick its ass and harness it and use it, that’s what I want you to get out of this documentary if you can because it applies to everyone’s life.”

With Iovine leading Apple Music’s growth and content creation charge in the age of OTT and vMPVDs, he’s also heavily invested in ensuring artists are fairly compensated, a similar mission stated by Dave Allen, the former Artist Relations Manger for Beats and then Apple Music, back in 2014 at SXSW (Allen recently joined North, Inc. as director of artist advocacy for a new division called North Music). This has been a highly contentious issue with major artists and indie bands alike, so it wil be interesting to see how it plays out, especially as blockchain gains ground, and how Apple Music will make a dent in favor of the people who make music.

Apple Music’s original content play includes Jay Z’s accompanying documentary, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A Bad Boy Story, to his recent 4:44 full-length release that was initially  only available on Tidal/Sprint but will be making it to Apple Music, the reality startup show Planet of the Apps, along with plans for a semi-autobiographical scripted show about Dr. Dre and a spinoff of James Corden‘s now infamous “Carpool Karaoke” coming on August 8 of this year.


In this era of watching TV and film on our mobile devices or iPads, I have to say that seeing Part 1 of The Defiant Ones in a theater and in the company of fellow hip-hop fans made the experience much more enjoyable. I would encourage theater owners across the country to consider adding special screening events like this to their business model and seeking out licensing deals with the rapidly growing world of content creators like HBO, Hulu (where you can now watch all HBO content; good news for Game of Thrones fans as the next season is right around the corner), Netflix (who has dabbled in theater screenings), Amazon, and the list goes on.

In the midst of the voracious appetite for content from both the digital and traditional studios and networks, the opportunities for more music-oriented narratives and docs will only increase, examples being the aforementioned Apple Music and HBO originals to the VR storytelling series from Live Nation and Hulu.

People are just as voracious for these tales, and in the case of The Defiant Ones, consumers gravitate to stories about their music icons but are really compelled by the pursuits of personal and profession successes that defy the stereotypes and antiquated race barriers. In the audiece of this screening was a diverse mix of people; African Americans, white, Hispanic, and Asian, and you could tell that the positive and powerful glimmer of “what could be” resonated throughout the theater as Iovine spoke.

“Barack Obama’s dream, what was the dream, actually happened to me a Dre,” Iovine said. “It was realized. We did it. I’m proud of that. I hope there’s more of that, because there’s magic in them there hills.”

HBO’s four-part series The Defiant Ones airs four consecutive nights, beginning with with Part 1 on Sunday, 9 ET/PT, and goes through July 12. The series will also stream on HBO Now, HBO Go, and HBO On Demand.

Photo credit: G L Askew II/HBO



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