Big Egos: HBO's documentaries on Rolling Stone and Dr. Dre & Jimmy Iovine


In the case of Rolling Stone, size does matter. It seems when the magazine shrunk in print size its significance went along with it. When I was a kid discovering music in the '90's, Rolling Stone still had some edge to it, with its risque Janet Jackson hand-full of boobs cover that made the oversized rag feel like the sexy rock-n-roll magazine. HBO's new documentary Stories from the Edge chronicles the rise and fall of the publication from its roots in the '60's counterculture of San Francisco to its disgraced retraction of the UVA campus rape story in 2014. The tale of the young founding publisher Jann Wenner and his then girlfriend, soon to be wife Jane (and then ex-wife, Wenner's coming out later in life and living as a partnered gay man is curiously omitted) took roots at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival, with Jimi Hendrix's guitar pyrotechnics and Otis Redding's soulful stammering.

What is shown in the two-part series is what's important to Rolling Stone (and Wenner's) narrative, the lens to which they saw rock-n-roll (and later hip-hop and pop). David Bowie doesn't get a mention, but plenty of attention is paid to Springsteen. Hunter S. Thompson and Cameron Crowe, arguably their two most legendary scribes, are given just retrospectives as the story of the magazine is truly within the figures behind the bylines. Stories from the Edge posits that the saga of Rolling Stone is the biography of the boomers, from Vietnam protests, Nixon and John Lennon to being a yuppie schmuck in the '80s and ending in the apocalypse of last November that was Trump. Matt Taibbi, who operates as a sober, clean-cut Hunter S., has railed against the evils of Wall Street and Washington as the music covered in the pages of Rolling Stone no longer Rages Against The Machine (pun intended).

Rolling Stone's role in politics, from McGovern in '72 to Bill Clinton in the '90s and last year's election, has evolved into the contemptuous corporate pseudo-liberal machine many have grown to resent. The magazine knows this, recognizing that at some point they went from being against the man to being the man. Aside from a Taylor Swift here and a Sam Smith there, musicians as iconic, generational stars are a dying breed and politics has become, a Taibbi would put it, an insane clown show. In an era where any semblance of authenticity is quickly commoditized, Rolling Stone is a legacy brand, a stale media company that will only be as innovative as it allows its writers to be.

Fucking headphones - Eminem says in disbelief. It takes over 3 hours for the often riveting HBO Dr. Dre/Jimmy Iovine biographical mini-series The Defiant Ones to get to the subject of those Beats By Dre buds.  Eminem wanted Dr. Dre to hurry up and finish the Detox album, to make more music, instead of working on consumer electronics. But, boy was he and everyone else wrong, because Dre and Jimmy wound up selling the company to Apple for billions. The Defiant Ones tells the (untold?) story of Dr. Dre's rise to hip-hop stardom, from World Class Wrecking Cru DJ to N.W.A. and Death Row and later discovering Eminem's demo tape in Iovine's garage and how the two men's lives have been intertwined with each other and the music culture for decades.

Most of Dre's narrative was told in the bio-pic Straight Outta Compton, but The Defiant Ones still manages to surprise with some unknown tidbits. Iovine's history, which often criss-crosses with the figures in the Rolling Stone doc, is more fascinating in that it's not as iconic and hasn't been dramatized yet. Jimmy Iovine went from being a studio engineer for John Lennon to producing hits for Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks. Iovine, a capitalist at heart, started Interscope and evolved it from being a renegade record label breaking artists like 2Pac (related: my Medium story on 2Pac/'90's hip-hop) and Nine Inch Nails into a juggernaut powerhouse racking up the platinum plaques. But then he realized Napster would kill the industry, so he got smart with Dre and invented fancy headphones.

In The Defiant Ones, there are plenty of scenes with Dr. Dre zipping around in his Lambo and showing off his construction in-progress Brentwood palace. Iovine's extravagant wedding to his second wife includes many celebrity guests. For years, Dr. Dre obsessed over perfection with Detox, only to be inspired by his youth during the Straight Outta Compton filming and he quickly released Compton, his first album in over 15 years. Compton is technically astounding and clearly composed by a creative genius but it lacks the magic that perhaps only a hungry artist, not a comfy reflective one, would possess. One could say Dre is a bored old rich guy and we are suckers for billionaire worship. The Defiant Ones and Stories from the Edge are about revolutionaries that eventually became household names. Music and social justice need each other now more than ever -- but marketing and technology has made the age of the star, the cultural zeitgeist, perhaps beyond reach.

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