Can a celebrity be too big to cancel? It’s often said we build our heroes up just to knock them down, eagerly anticipating the moment when some superstar athlete goes from GOAT to notorious, or a pop star gets lambasted for saying something stupid on Instagram, or a congressman is nailed in a corruption sting. And sure, lately there’s been an overdue reckoning for rich and powerful men, after decades of piggish behavior. But let’s not kid ourselves. Whenever there are millions of dollars to be made—or even when jailing or sidelining an entrenched bigwig is incredibly inconvenient—our social and cultural institutions remain willing to look the other way. People who’ve been credibly accused of sexual assault keep getting played on the radio, keep getting hailed as legends by sportscasters, keep getting asked to appear on television as knowledgeable insiders, and keep getting endorsed in political campaigns.
The documentary On The Record has been described as a film about the secret life of hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons, and about the multiple women—and in particular one woman, Drew Dixon—who have accused him of sexual harassment and rape. But that description puts too blunt a point on the story Dixon tells here, and on the repercussions that the doc’s co-directors, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, intend to explore. This isn’t a movie about a mogul who may have gotten away with heinous crimes. On The Record is more about a show business system ill-designed to process the friction these kinds of accusations create. It’s also about how some remarkably gifted people end up getting squashed, to keep the gears of profit properly greased.
Even if Dixon’s story didn’t take a tragic turn, it’d be worth telling. The daughter of two high-level D.C. politicians—her mother, Sharon Pratt, was the city’s mayor in the early ’90s—Dixon developed a love of music at an early age, and became passionate about hip-hop and R&B as a teenager. She joined Def Jam in the A&R department, and right away showed an ear for talent and a knack for packaging. She had a successful run at the label, serving as an executive producer and artist-wrangler on the platinum-selling soundtrack for the documentary The Show. Then she says her boss, Simmons, started taking an interest in her as more than just a promising younger colleague.
On The Record interweaves Dixon’s rise to prominence in the ’90s music business with scenes set in the present day, as she considers whether to join a growing list of women accusing the Def Jam cofounder of sexual misconduct. Dick and Ziering take different approaches to the film’s two halves, making the modern material a suspenseful “you are there” observational doc and the flashbacks more of a pop history lesson, buoyed by an impassioned testimonial. Both parts rely heavily on Dixon’s natural charisma. She’s good company, whether talking about how much pride she took in working with the likes of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Mary J. Blige or explaining how shattering it was when her time at Def Jam came to an end, not long after the alleged rape.
The descriptions of Simmons’ alleged assaults—detailed by not just Dixon but also some of the other women who have gone public—are hard to hear. They’re also upsetting in the similarities between the stories: in both the particulars of the incidents and in the way they left the women feeling confused, ashamed, and hopeless—and like they had no choice but to upend their lives and restart careers they’d spent years building.
It’s disturbing in a different way when Dixon gets into her second act in the industry. She moved to Arista Records, and helped nurture a string of top 40 and Grammy-winning records from Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Lauryn Hill, Santana, and more. Then Clive Davis stepped down as Arista president, and L.A. Reid stepped up, at which point—according to Dixon—she had to fend off another boss’ sexual advances. The working relationship soured, and Dixon says that, as a result, Arista missed out on signing some artists she was touting, including Kanye West and John Legend.
Before On The Record’s Sundance debut earlier this year, the news broke that Oprah Winfrey, the doc’s original producer, had pulled her support (and the Apple TV+ deal that came with it). She’d reportedly shown the movie to trusted friends who questioned some elements of Dixon’s story, and who wondered if Winfrey—via a pair of white filmmakers, no less—should be taking aim at two Black men who are such towering figures in American popular culture. The latter criticism is addressed to an extent in the documentary, as some of the interviewees admit to feeling a deep internal resistance to challenging a pioneer like Simmons.
But that’s ultimately the phenomenon this powerful film is exploring. There’s a remarkable sequence late in the documentary, after Dixon goes public, where she listens to a hip-hop radio show expecting to be pilloried and is instead surprised to hear a panel of DJs beating themselves up, for not being more honest with the public about things they’d either heard or seen themselves. Meanwhile, as Dixon tries once again to return to music—back to square one, working with a young singer-songwriter—Dick and Ziering put together a montage showing Simmons still appearing on magazine covers, and still being invited to talk to TV and film crews about his inspirational entrepreneurial tale. Perhaps the most chilling point On The Record makes is that it doesn’t always take legal exoneration to restore a scandal-plagued person’s reputation. Sometimes, the culture naturally gravitates back to a story that’s easier to tell.