LOS ANGELES – Jimmy Iovine may or may not set foot in the Twin Cities anytime soon, but his imprint is all over our summer schedule. He served as a producer for Graham Parker, U2, Lady Gaga and Enrique Iglesias — none of whom would be such hot tickets in the next few months if not for Iovine’s keen ear and guiding hand.
Iovine is no longer behind the soundboard these days, focusing his attention instead on his billion-dollar headphones business, Beats Electronics, which he co-founded with Dr. Dre. That improbable partnership is the driving force behind “The Defiant Ones,” a four-part documentary premiering Sunday on HBO, but it’s Iovine’s rags-to-riches journey that makes the film essential viewing.
Director Allen Hughes (“Menace II Society”) tries his best to balance the back stories of both legendary figures, but Iovine keeps stealing the show. That’s partly because Dre’s tale has been told numerous times before, notably in the 2015 feature film “Straight Outta Compton,” but also because Iovine just can’t help himself.
“I didn’t want to do a documentary about me,” said Iovine, 64, displaying the kind of manic energy and brutal honesty that made his mentoring gig on “American Idol” the most engaging element of the program in the post-Simon Cowell years. “The magic trick that got me to do it was Allen saying, ‘No, it’s about your relationship.’ So somewhere in my mind I said, ‘Oh, the relationship. So that makes it not about me.’ Well, sitting here right now, we know it’s bull, because it’s about me. Right? I can’t hide from it now.”
Hughes doesn’t gloss over Iovine’s shortcomings: how Bruce Springsteen taught him a thing or six about work ethic during the making of “Born to Run,” how Tom Petty would snip the cord on Iovine’s landline phone to get him to focus on “Damn the Torpedoes,” how Foghat fired him for falling asleep at the soundboard and bringing his girlfriend to sessions.
“What most artists don’t do is look in the mirror,” Iovine said. “I have big mirrors in my house and I look at them and say, ‘OK, where did I screw up? Where did you choke here?’ So, you know, you’re going to get fired, man. When you’re walking, sometimes the sidewalk is caving in behind you. There is no cushion. So you’ve got to keep going. That’s probably my real talent. I’m able to be numb enough to keep going.”
The film’s talking heads, which include Patti Smith, Springsteen and entertainment mogul David Geffen, have more generous things to say about Iovine, particularly his doggedness and ability to smell a hit.
Then again, Tom Petty comes across like he’s still carrying a grudge against Iovine for finagling him into giving “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” to the producer’s then-girlfriend Stevie Nicks, which would eclipse any of the Heartbreakers’ own singles at the time. Iovine was also instrumental in talking Springsteen out of recording “Because the Night” himself and handing it over to Smith.
“He happens to you like a virus,” Bono says in the documentary. “He enters your system like a virus and takes over your brain.”
Hughes, who knew Dr. Dre and Iovine before they met each other, does a stellar job of getting notoriously fidgety figures like Eminem and Smith to sit long enough to reflect on the icons.
“You are not going to get the PBS version,” said Hughes of the finished product, which required three years of filming. “You are going to get the HBO version, a very intimate vibe.”
Iovine initially hoped to do a project on the origins of Interscope Records, the controversial label he co-founded in 1990, which championed everyone from Gerardo to No Doubt. He backed away from the navel-gazing interviews at one point, leaving Hughes waiting for more than a year. He finally relented, handing over more than 800 home videos spanning from his childhood to the present day.
“There’s a great Bob Seger line, ‘I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then,’ ” Iovine said. “I wish I could rewind and unlearn so many things so that when I’m working, I’m more spontaneous. But unfortunately, as you get older, you fight spontaneity. If you’re going to make entertainment in your 60s, you’d better learn how to be spontaneous again or else you’re going to fail.”
Iovine didn’t have anything to do with the 1980 album “Against the Wind,” which that Seger line comes from. But he produced the artist’s follow-up.
It’s more-than-fitting title? “The Distance.”