Allen Hughes says that the biggest challenge he faced while filming “The Defiant Ones,” a four-part HBO documentary series that premieres July 9, was “thinking that it would be easy.” The 45-year-old Hughes brother (one half of the directorial duo, along with fraternal twin Albert, behind “Menace II Society” and “Dead Presidents”) got an immediate green light from HBO in 2013 when he pitched a project on the life of Dr. Dre, 52, whom he had met on an N.W.A music video set 25 years ago.
What was supposed to be a hip-hop documentary ended up as a music-business education centered on the relationship between Dre and Jimmy Iovine, following Apple’s $3 billion acquisition of Beats in 2014. Hughes filmed the series — which features commentary from Lady Gaga, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Nicks — over three years, after initially planning for a 12-month shoot; in early June, he was still finishing an interview segment with Kendrick Lamar for the final episode.
“I thought it would be fun, and challenging,” Hughes says of helming the series, “but I didn’t think it would be brutal.” Along with offering insight into Dre and Iovine’s working relationship as Beats Electronics co-founders — Eminem’s line “Jimmy is the levitator, Dre is the innovator” has become the standout sound bite from HBO’s ad campaign — “The Defiant Ones” explores the failures and hardships each has suffered, from Iovine’s high school struggles in 1960s Brooklyn to Dre’s effort to move on from Tupac Shakur’s 1996 death. “When [Hughes] called me to do this, Dre thought it was a good idea, and I trust him,” says Iovine, 64.
One of the series’ biggest surprises is the inclusion of Dee Barnes, the journalist/hip-hop artist who alleged that Dre assaulted her in 1991 (he issued a public apology to “the women I’ve hurt” in 2015). “What I told Dre was, ‘You saying sorry is not enough,’ ” recalls Hughes. “Dee had to have a voice in this, because she was like a little sister in the early N.W.A days.” Although Dre and Barnes don’t appear onscreen together, Hughes made a point to include Barnes in early footage of N.W.A and stress her importance in Dre’s rise to stardom. “I didn’t want her to be a footnote,” he says.
There are moments of levity that break up the heaviness; a young Dre is captured singing along to Nirvana, while the first episode begins with a drunken Tyrese Gibson leaking the news of Apple’s Beats acquisition in a comical viral video.
Yet the heart of “The Defiant Ones” is the shared intensity of Dre and Iovine. “They read every fiber of you,” says Hughes. It’s what Iovine, formerly chairman of Interscope Geffen A&M, credits for their decade of success after co-founding Beats in 2006. “It’s unfortunately an unusual thing, for a white man and a black man to go into business like that,” says Iovine. “[But] I knew there was something powerful that could cross musical and geographical boundaries.”
“The Defiant Ones” is set to debut Sunday, July 9, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.