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What I learned from 'The Defiant Ones': Big money dulls defiance

It was all going to come down to how they dealt with the whole Beats headphones deal, for me.

Was "The Defiant Ones," the four-part, give-hour documentary now airing on HBO, going to come across as an advertisement for Beats and a celebration of that company's purchase by Apple for $3 billion? Or were we going to learn something about Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, the men behind Beats and some of the most influential popular music of the past 40 years, other than the fact that capitalism has been very good to them?

"The Defiant Ones," the product of three years of work by director Allen Hughes, is happily much more than an advertisement for Beats. The product placement issues are relatively easy to ignore. That out of the way, we can let the real lessons of "The Defiant Ones" seep into our consciousness, sans a healthy cynicism. The documentary is essentially a tale of two men from two cities – Red Hook, Brooklyn, and Compton, Calif., where Iovine and Dre, respectively, were born a bit more than a decade apart. Both faced struggles, though Dre's poverty- and crime-ridden reality would suggest a much tougher battle. Iovine cut his teeth as an engineer first, and later as a producer of seminal '70s rock records from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith and Tom Petty. Dre all but single-handedly crafted the tough-as-nails, post-funk, groove-driven strain of hip-hop that came to be known as gangsta rap, first with N.W.A., and then as a solo artist and record producer.

The defiance referenced in the documentary's title refers to the bull-headed inability of each of the protagonists to accept anything less than success, despite overwhelming odds. Iovine, we learn through interviews with Springsteen, Smith, Petty and others, was a fiery and incorrigible recording studio collaborator who firmly believed he knew best how to bring the artist's finest work out of them. He also had no intention of letting the fact that he was learning on the job and had no real theoretical understanding of how music works other than the confidence to declare "This is a hit!" and "This isn’t a hit!" get in his way. Iovine trusted his gut. His gut made him very rich.

Dre, on the other hand, worked slowly, methodically, recording and hoarding far more music than he ever released, and never letting his name be associated with anything that he didn’t fully believe in.

The series starts out with the Beats deal, but by the end of Part II, we feel we're witnessing a story of the redemptive powers offered by creativity and unflinching passion for the work. This changes as things progress, just as Iovine embraced the Clive Davis model – everything that glitters must be gold, or else it wouldn’t be glittering, essentially – and Dre became, on the surface at least, more of a mogul than a musician. By the end of Part IV, I found myself a bit depressed, as I realized that these two renegade artists had morphed into the very mainstream music industry types they'd initially rebelled against. If you sell out, even for $3 billion, you are no longer able to claim true defiance against mainstream homogenization. You've become the mainstream.

And yet, when you see the fire that burns in Dre's eyes as he works in the studio, when you hear him talk about what music has meant to him and continues to mean to him, you can’t help but cling to the thin, fraying fibers of a defiant hope. When Kendrick Lamar shows up near the film's end, that hope is underscored. Perhaps the cycle is merely beginning again.

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