Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 26, 2017)
Though the title implies it offers a remake of a 1958 Tony Curtis movie, instead 2017’s The Defiant Ones gives us a documentary about the music business. In particular, it focuses on the dual careers and eventual partnership of Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine.
After a prologue that looks at problems related to the sale of the “Beats” line to Apple, we then trace the separate lives of Dre and Iovine. We see Dre’s start with NWA and his move to the recording booth as well as Iovine’s work as a producer who founded Interscope Records. We watch their ups and downs all along the way as well as how they joined forces.
Defiant provides the usual mix of archival footage and interviews. In addition to Dre and Iovine, we hear from attorneys Howard King and Peter Paterno, managers Paul Rosenberg and Jon Landau, Dre’s mother Verna Griffin, Iovine’s sister Janet Mormile, nightclub manager Alonzo Williams, Sony Music chairman Doug Morris, MTV host Fab 5 Freddy, former wife Vicki Iovine, attorney Allen Grubman, label founder David Geffen, A&R executive Tom Whalley, Interscope Head of Business Affairs David Cohen, Interscope Vice Chairman Doug Berman, TVT Records founder Steve Gottlieb, former label executives Step Johnson, Steve Stoute and Michael Fuchs, financial advisor Paul Wachter, film producer Larry Gordon, Dre’s wife Nicole Young, Beats president Luke Wood, and musicians Bruce Springsteen, Gwen Stefani, Will.I.Am, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Tom Petty, the DOC, Sean “Puffy” Combs, Bono, Ice Cube, Trent Reznor, Patti Smith, Kendrick Lamar, Dee Barnes, Nas, DJ Yella, MC Ren, and Stevie Nicks.
If forced to pick a negative about Defiant, it’d relate to some of the prominent figures we don’t hear from during the interviews. In particular, the absence of Marilyn Manson and Lady Gaga – both of whom figure fairly strongly in the narrative – proves to be a disappointment.
But only a minor one, as I can’t gripe with the roster of participants who do appear. Defiant comes with major names, and all offer useful information that helps flesh out the subject matter. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to listen to “Born to Run” again without the sound of Springsteen barking “STICK!” in my head.
Of course, Iovine and Dre reside at the core of the documentary, and they hold up their end of the bargain. They seem blunt and honest as they cover their careers and lives – this may be an “authorized” documentary, but it doesn’t appear to pull punches.
Director Allen Hughes delivers all of this in a tight, brisk package that keeps us with it for the entire four-plus hours. Okay, I’ll admit that the inevitable “happily ever after” ending seems a bit trite, and a few other moments toward the finale sag a bit, but those are minor complaints.
That’s because Defiant ones remains almost shockingly engaging across its running time. Usually documentaries like this fare best in their subjects’ “early days”, back when the subjects had something to prove. Once Dre and Iovine attained success, the story should get less interesting.
But it doesn’t, partly because Iovine and Dre never rest on their proverbial laurels. Rather than fall into “Fat and Happy Land”, they continue to work, and the ways they stay at the center of the music industry ensure that the documentary continues to sizzle.
All of this makes Defiant Ones a terrific ride. Of course, if the music involved interests you, that becomes a bonus, but I think the program should succeed for anyone.