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Review: HBO’s ‘The Defiant Ones’ a fascinating look at music’s odd couple

Television Critic

“The Defiant Ones” starts out with the least interesting but most lucrative turning point in the partnership of rap producer Dr. Dre and music biz mogul Jimmy Iovine. It was 2014 and their streaming service, Beats Music, was acquired by Apple in a $3.2-billion deal.

Music’s odd couple had suddenly become its billionaire boys club.

But it’s the decades of struggle and successes leading up to that point that make this four-part series stand out in the crowded field of music docs.

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Writer and director Allen Hughes adeptly weaves Dre (born Andre Romelle Young) and Iovine’s stories together, from their early days on different coasts, in different decades, worshipping very different music genres — to the birth of their partnership in the late 1990s and beyond.

Collectively Dre, 52, and Iovine, 64, have worked with John Lennon, Patti Smith, Snoop Dogg, Bono, Tom Petty, Ice Cube, Trent Reznor, Stevie Nicks and Will.i.Am. They’ve broken artists such as Tupac, Eminem and Gwen Stefani.

Now many of these pop luminaries sit down to talk about Dre and Iovine in “The Defiant Ones,” along with music industry powerbrokers like David Geffen and Doug Morris.

But it’s really Dre’s story that makes “The Defiant Ones,” which premieres on HBO on Sunday, such a fascinating journey.

“I’ve had such a traumatic but fortunate career,” he says early on in one of many candid moments Hughes gets with the notoriously private hip-hop pioneer. It’s an intimate look at a man who’s always stayed an arm’s length from the press, even as he became a household name.

Here he speaks about his late brother, his dangerous dealings with former label partner Suge Knight, the assault of Dee Barnes with emotion, depth and regret. That rare access alone makes “The Defiant Ones” worth four-plus hours of your life.

Through historical footage, interviews and a killer soundtrack, “The Defiant Ones” tracks Dre’s career trajectory from dancer in a pop-and-lock crew to founding N.W.A member to revered producer in rap and pop.

The consistent thread is his sheer talent. Ice Cube recalls watching Dre teach Eazy-E how to rap in the early days of N.W.A: “It was like watching Dr. Frankenstein or something.”

Tracking Dre’s evolution also means looking at the rise of West Coast hip-hop, from its genesis in the small clubs of Compton to a dominant force in mainstream music and pop culture. “The Defiant Ones” deftly captures the excitement of that time — one of popular music’s last true revolutions.

Iovine is the twitchy, hyped-up salesman compared to the calm, quiet artist that is Dre.

The Interscope Records founder, who grew up in Brooklyn as the Italian Catholic son of a longshoreman, brings rock history into the series when he talks about his romantic and business relationship with Nicks, and working with Bruce Springsteen and Lennon in his early career as an engineer and producer.

The consistent thread in Iovine’s success is his unbridled and often obnoxious amounts of ambition: Bono recalls how Iovine got the band to work with him in the 1980s: “Jimmy was a bit too slick for us,” says the U2 singer. But he was “like a virus that gets in your system, uninvited. He chased us around the world until we hooked up with him.”

Iovine amassed talent as a producer throughout the ’70s and ’80s, finally founding his label Interscope in the early ’90s. It would serve as the much-celebrated and maligned home to controversial acts like Marilyn Manson.

Critics also accused him of profiting off the violence depicted in the gangsta rap on his label. The beefs, rhetoric and actions became so violent they culminated in Tupac’s shooting death in 1997 on the Vegas Strip and later Biggie Smalls being killed.

When asked in the series how he felt about making money from gangsta culture, Iovine said, “I was confused. … Am I defending free speech or am I funding Hamas?”

Dre and Iovine’s stories converged in the mid-’90s when they began working together through a partnership with Death Row Records. The two men would go on to forge one of the most influential music empires of the 21st century, which included Dre signing Eminem and 50 Cent, and Iovine the Black Eyed Peas and Lady Gaga.

When music sales tanked due to piracy, they came up with Beats by Dre headphones and later the cash cow of all cash cows, Beats Music.

The last part of the documentary is a bit like an ad for Beats Music and Apple — and everything wonderful to come from these two men. “Apple is music,” says Iovine.

But it’s the earlier hours that make “The Defiant Ones” a must watch for anyone invested in the history of hip-hop or modern pop.

‘The Defiant Ones’

Where: HBO

When: 9 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

lorraine.ali@latimes.com

@lorraineali


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