The Defiant Ones review – Dr Dre's American dream comes vividly to life

NWA, Snoop Dogg, Beats, yachts, clips from Goodfellas … every other music doc should throw in the towel because this one has got the lot

You know those music docs, often found on BBC4 on a Friday night, in which, interspersed with archive footage, you get music journos in front of their record collections showing off how much they know?

Well this HBO four-parter, now streaming on Netflix, ain’t like that. Sure, there is archive and there are talking heads. But what talking heads! For starters, the subjects, Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine, take a very active part. They’re here, in the flesh and in the foreground. The access isn’t bad either – yachts, jets, Bahamas, you got it. Then, on backing, you’ve got the remaining living members of NWA, Ice Cube, MC Ren and DJ Yella; plus, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty RIP, Gwen Stefani, Eminem ... the list goes on.

We begin in 2014, with Dre and Jimmy selling Beats to Apple. Potentially this is the least interesting part – it’s just a business deal, albeit a big one ($3bn). But entertainingly, it could have gone wrong, with Dre and his pal Tyrese bragging about it on Facebook. Snoop Dogg acts out how Apple weren’t exactly over the moon about that, so it may only be the account of a business deal, but it’s the best account of a business deal I ever saw. Allen Hughes, who directed and co-wrote the documentary, even manages to slip in a clip of De Niro in Goodfellas.

Record producer and music mogul Jimmy Iovene in The Defiant Ones.
Record producer and music mogul Jimmy Iovine in The Defiant Ones. Photograph: Netflix

From there we go back to Jimmy growing up in New York in the 70s, the son of a dockworker, scrapping his way into the music business. And Dre in Compton, LA, in the 80s, with the gangs and the violence, then getting his first mixer and DJing and performing with World Class Wreckin’ Cru and then NWA.

The Defiant Ones is the story of these two characters, on either side of the US and in some ways so completely different, but both super-driven and kind of living the American dream. And drawn inevitably together, like the Titanic and the iceberg, though with a happier outcome. Especially if you like headphones and money.

They tell it so well. Check out Dr Dre on ego: “It’s almost like a little pilot light, and fame is the gasoline, and once fame gets poured on that ego, you never know if the pilot light is going to go out or it’s going to turn into a motherfucking bonfire.”

And it’s all so beautifully put together by Hughes, with nice little touches such as when Dre talks about using a crossfader to go from one turntable to the other and the sound also pans across. The Defiant Ones is witty, polished, grand in scale, ambition and budget, while remaining totally engrossing. The other music docs may as well give up now.


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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