By Frazier Moore
“The Defiant Ones,” a new HBO docuseries about two giants in the entertainment world, takes its title from a 1958 film classic about two prison escapees, one black and one white, who are shackled together as they make a break for freedom.
Airing Sunday through Wednesday at 9 p.m. EDT, the docuseries tracks the lives of Dr. Dre, whose upbringing in Compton, California, inspired him to become a pioneer of gangsta rap, and Jimmy Iovine, a working-class kid from Brooklyn, New York, who made his bones as a record producer working with John Lennon, Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen.
This four-part portrait differs markedly from the original “Defiant Ones,” whose fictional heroes are literally stuck with each other. The unlikely kindred spirits Dre and Iovine are bonded not by chains but by a mutual passion that cemented their relationship with Iovine's Interscope Records, which soon after its 1990 launch was swept up in armed warfare between rap rivals, not to mention political and corporate assault.
“I hate to use the word ‘scary,' but it got really weird,” he says before posing a rhetorical question: “Why did these two guys stay together under the most difficult circumstances in the history of entertainment?”
With remarkable finesse, the film laces back and forth between their wildly different origins, then follows their implausible association culminating in their 2014 sale of Beats Electronics to Apple for more than $3 billion.
“The biggest challenge was to blend these men, these cultures, these genres,” said Allen Hughes, who directed “The Defiant Ones.”
Hughes said his film is meant to speak to all audiences and musical tastes.
“We want to throw a gangsta party that everyone's invited to,” he explained by phone from Los Angeles. “We had a rule in the editing room: ‘If grandma wouldn't understand it, it's gotta go.”'
With a bounty of archival footage and scores of new interviews, the film was several years in the making.
“I kept saying, ‘This thing won't go away,”' Iovine laughs. “I didn't think it would be four episodes, man! I kept saying, ‘ONE!”'
Arriving for an interview last week, Iovine is sporting a white baseball cap on his shaved head and a designer T-shirt with woodcuts of owls, which might have symbolized his stature, at age 64, as an entertainment wise man, but which he insists just means “I love to shop and I liked the shirt, so I bought it.”
Only days earlier, Iovine previewed “The Defiant Ones,” which, despite eschewing the “he-did-this, he-did-that” biopic structure Iovine loathes, inevitably lays out his career as a half-century timeline of popular music.
Along with recalling his triumphs, was there anything that made him squeamish to revisit in the film?
“All of it,” Iovine says, as if by reflex. “It was so painful, man. Even having hit records is painful, ‘cause you think you can't do it again. Or Beats comes out with a headphone that does really well, but all of a sudden another company comes and challenges it.
“I never celebrated a success. There are no victory laps. There's no rearview mirror in my car. I'm always moving forward.” That's the lesson he wants viewers to take from the film. “The most important thing I ever learned: No matter how ugly it gets, keep moving.”
Even so, his career resonates with other useful wisdom.
From his first days in the music business, sweeping up the studio where Lennon and Springsteen made magic, “I learned how to be of service. OF service. And I took it from there all the way to Apple Music. I want Apple Music to be OF service, not A service’not just a utility.”
Told that his interviewer is a Spotify guy, Iovine fires up his Apple Music app and demonstrates a few of its bells and whistles, including a Favorites playlist that Apple Music has just curated for him: songs include “Glory Days,” “I Wanna Be Sedated,” “Just Like a Woman,” “Brown Sugar” and “Mambo Baby,” a 1950s release by R&B great Ruth Brown.
Iovine says he left the record business for digital streaming because it made sense to keep moving: “I didn't want to be the guy who sold the last CD.”
He feels right at home at Apple, where he has no title and “no one reports to me. I walk around the hallway and say what I think, and people either listen or they don't. I just want to get the job done.”
But the truth is, these days he wants more than getting the job done, as he realized while screening “The Defiant Ones.”
“What I learned,” he says, choosing his words carefully, “is, I think I can have ambition, and PEACE. Those first 40 years were a lot of work, a lot of physical and emotional stuff, and I never looked for peace.
“It isn't money or success that brings you peace. It's learning about yourself. This movie's helped me do that. I'm gonna still get the job done,” he declares, “but with a sense of peace.”