HBO’s docuseries The Defiant Ones heads into Emmy nomination voting season with considerable momentum. The four-parter about music industry impresarios Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine has already captured a major documentary award over some prestigious competitors.
In December it won Best Limited Series at the IDA Awards, defeating—among others—another likely Emmy nominee, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War. The victory came as a major surprise to director Allen Hughes.
“I was just shocked. I had told my publicist, ‘There’s no way. This is not going to happen,” Hughes recalls. “I was up against a hero of mine, Ken Burns, and other heavies in that competition.”
The Defiant Ones clocks in at almost four and a half hours, less than a third the marathon running time of The Vietnam War, but that doesn’t mean it lacks impressive scope. Hughes was challenged with telling the stories of two titans who forged independent careers and then became even more successful when they joined forces. The personal and professional bond between Dre and Iovine deepened after the label Dre co-founded, Death Row Records, entered into partnership with Interscope, the record company Iovine ran. They would launch a succession of major artists from Snoop Dogg to Eminem and 50 Cent, and later combined to form Beats Electronics, makers of wildly popular headphones.
Hughes tells Deadline he felt the breadth of the subject matter demanded a multi-part treatment.
“That was the biggest fight that the three of us had,” he explains. “Jimmy and Dre on that side, and me on the side of multiple parts. They felt like it was too self-indulgent to do multiple parts. I said, ‘Guys, I’m doing a story on your life, Jimmy. I’m doing a story on Dre’s life, and then there’s a whole story about you guys together. That’s three films. How the f**k am I gonna put that in two hours?’”
There were subplots to cover too—Iovine’s work with leading rock acts in the ’80s and ’90s and Dre’s pioneering work as a producer, solo artist and founding member of one of gangsta rap’s premier groups.
“[Within The Defiant Ones] there’s a documentary about N.W.A. There’s a documentary about Tom Petty. There’s a documentary about Nine Inch Nails. There’s a mini-documentary on U2. When you’re in it, you’re like, ‘Wait a minute, is this a U2 documentary, or?’” Hughes observes. “You’re not reminding the audience about Dre and Jimmy all the time. You’re investing in these narratives and these characters.”
To get at the cultural impact of Dre and Iovine, Hughes also needed to delve into the intense controversy that swirled around Death Row Records, that label’s volatile co-founder Suge Knight, and some of Death Row’s mega-artists including Snoop and Tupac Shakur, who would be fatally shot in Las Vegas in 1996.
Gangsta rap became a political lightning rod, putting fierce pressure on Interscope and its business partner Time Warner, a nightmarish period of time that Iovine was not eager to revisit.
“Dre was in…Jimmy agreed to do it, and then Jimmy got cold feet and didn’t want to do it, because he didn’t want to dig up all that stuff from the ’90s. All that stuff with Time Warner, all that stuff with Death Row Records, the East Coast-West Coast thing, he just didn’t want to get into it,” Hughes remembers. “So we went a year where Jimmy backed out of it, and then I call Dre and I’m like, ‘Man, we [have to do this].’ Somehow we convinced him to do it again.”
The story has a happy ending—Hughes got the full participation of his two subjects. And things haven’t turned out badly for Dre and Iovine either. In 2014 they sold Beats to Apple for $3 billion. For Iovine the sale capped a remarkable rise from son of a Brooklyn longshoreman to the heights of business success. There had been times early on when it appeared Iovine’s career might never take off.
“Jimmy’s getting fired from every job. He’s getting fired [as a janitor], from a job sweeping,” Hughes exclaims. “If you can’t be inspired by that, I don’t know what you can be inspired by.”
The Apple deal made Dre a billionaire, a stunning achievement for a young man “strait outta Compton,” a notoriously tough section of LA. Many would have bet on a different hip hop mogul—Jay Z or Sean Combs—becoming the first to break that net worth barrier.
“He wasn’t the horse in the race that you thought would be the first hip hop billionaire. That was a surprise to everyone,” Hughes notes. “He wasn’t the guy out there chasing that billion dollar status, and trying to get all the attention and get all the accolades. Dre is just trying to be in the studio, making great s**t.”
Hughes himself has been making great, uh, stuff, since his 20s. He and his twin brother Albert co-directed the acclaimed narrative films Dead Presidents (1995) and From Hell (2001). With The Defiant Ones, Hughes found a comfortable home for himself in documentary.
“I was at a point in my life and my career where I was very frustrated with the way things were going, in general, and not being able to tell stories the way I wanted to tell them, and do things the way I wanted to do them,” he admits. “I thought this was perfect for me to express myself. It’s just that simple.”
Along with the IDA Award, The Defiant Ones also won Hughes a Grammy this year in the category of Best Music Film. Should the docuseries be crowned with an Emmy, he already knows where the statuette will go.
“Any one of those things that I’m blessed enough to win, it goes straight to mom’s house,” he confides. “It took three months for my Grammy to come, and it came, literally, four days ago, and I took it right to my mom. It’s like, when you open her front door, bing! There it is, to the right.”