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Review: In ‘The Defiant Ones,’ a Revealing Portrait of Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine

This is clear from the beginning of this docu-series, which opens with the 2014 sale of Beats, a headphone and music streaming company founded by Dr. Dre and Mr. Iovine, to Apple, but told through a misstep — a notorious Facebook video. In the video, Dr. Dre, partying with the singer and actor Tyrese, among others, calls himself the “first billionaire in hip-hop,” in effect leaking the news.


Dr. Dre, who with Jimmy Iovine is the subject of “The Defiant Ones,” a four-part biographical series.

G L Askew II, via HBO

The deal still goes through — everyone gets very rich — but Mr. Hughes uses this moment to foreground some internal trauma in Dr. Dre that will recur throughout the series.

Mr. Hughes and his team of exquisite editors are full of tricks like this, tiny gestures that add complexity and intrigue: Dr. Dre playing a favorite Kraftwerk song while relaxing in Musha Cay, in the Bahamas, which then becomes the backdrop to a historical segment about the history of Compton; the story about the naming of N.W.A cutting to a scene of Dr. Dre and Mr. Iovine in a luxury S.U.V., fine-tuning the speakers to their taste; Tom Petty, explaining in his languorous slur of a voice how manic Mr. Iovine was when they worked together, overlaid on top of silent footage of Mr. Iovine speaking and making extreme facial gestures.

“The Defiant Ones” feels impressively lush and well-resourced — superstars like Mr. Springsteen and Eminem show up and tell long stories. Filming has been taking place for the project for at least the past three years. And there is judicious use of vivid period footage: Dr. Dre in purple satin scrubs as part of the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, and then later teaching Eazy-E to rap line by line for his debut album; Mr. Iovine talking music with Bono and the Edge of U2 at a Long Island beach house in the 1980s; a photo of a Sunday football gathering at Mr. Iovine’s house in the 1990s that includes Suge Knight and John F. Kennedy Jr.

Mr. Hughes injects little moments of skepticism via quick-hit interstitials — a shivering bowl of soup on a turbulent private jet, a hot tub fallen into filthy disuse. And he complicates the narrative, slightly, by sprinkling antagonists throughout — mostly rival music executives though not Mr. Knight, Dr. Dre’s greatest albatross. Most pointed is his inclusion of Dee Barnes, the TV host who was assaulted by Dr. Dre in 1991 (an incident that was omitted from the 2015 N.W.A biopic “Straight Outta Compton”). Ms. Barnes is here, conscripted to both discuss the attack — “my feet were off the ground” — and detail N.W.A’s early years, a move that places her in the thorny dual roles of victim and historian. (Dr. Dre apologizes, explaining that he watched his mother suffer physical abuse, and that “No woman should ever be treated that way.”)

In the way of much great culture, what begins as passionate art eventually becomes passionate business, and “The Defiant Ones” devotes roughly half its time to each. (At moments, the fourth installment feels like a commercial for Apple Music, even the scene in which Mr. Iovine implores a group of employees to figure out ways to get people to subscribe.) What’s missing is personal, psychological nuance. There are tantalizing bits throughout about Dr. Dre’s perfectionism and his reluctance to release music, but not much theorizing about it. And while the film implies that the two are close friends, there’s surprisingly little personal testimony from either about the other.

Finally, “The Defiant Ones” is less warts-and-all revealing than both men warrant. This is by design, of course — it is the price of intimate access. But Mr. Hughes is savvy enough to insert reminders of stories that remain untold. Occasionally you can hear his voice off-camera gently cajoling a more detailed answer out of someone, most pointedly when covering Dr. Dre’s time at Death Row Records, a place where violence, humiliation and fear were routine.

In one scene, Dr. Dre is driving his sports car and speaking about some of the indignities that were part and parcel of life at Death Row. Mr. Hughes pushes him for more — did he witness these things himself? — and Dr. Dre shoots him a quick, exasperated look, and snaps, “I’m not saying that on camera, Allen.” Except that, in essence, he just did.

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