At a festival filled with smaller films jostling for attention, and quite often distribution, making headlines two weeks before Sundance has even kicked off is a boost that most film-makers would kill for. But for the directors of the documentary On the Record, gaining worldwide traction wasn’t cause for celebration. It was something close to disaster.
The film, which details accusations of sexual misconduct and assault by music mogul Richard Simmons, initially seemed to have everything: a topical subject matter, the Oscar-nominated producer-director team of Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, intimate access, a splashy outlet in the shape of Apple TV+ and, most importantly, an executive producer by the name of Oprah Winfrey. It was set to be the most widely accessible documentary on #MeToo in music at a time when the industry is slowly catching up to the reckoning that’s taken place in the film world since the fall of Harvey Weinstein.
Then on 10 January, things fell apart.
In a shock move, Winfrey pulled her support and credit for the film, taking its Apple distribution deal with her. At the time, she released a statement saying that there was “more work to be done on the film to illuminate the full scope of what the victims endured” and that she didn’t align herself with the “creative vision” of Ziering and Dick. The film-makers have stood by the film, as has Sundance, and on Saturday, it premiered in the hope of finding a distributor in the process.
It tells the story of A&R executive Drew Dixon primarily but also of the other women who decided to come forward with their allegations of harassment and rape at the hands of Simmons, the co-founder of Def Jam, referred to in the film as “the godfather” of hip-hop.
Dixon is more than just a talking head, she’s a fully fledged protagonist captured at every stage of a gruelling process from figuring out whether or not she wants to come forward, to dealing with journalists at the New York Times who would ultimately help tell her story, to processing the aftereffects. It’s a piercing portrait of what happens to someone when they go through not only the abuse itself but the complicated emotional journey in the years and decades after.
“I do not want to be radioactive,” Dixon says in the film as she mulls over the potential fallout from coming forward.
Dixon was a rare talent in the hip-hop scene of the mid-90s working her way up to her dream job at Def Jam through tenacity and drive but mostly, an undiluted love and an expertly trained ear for the music. In the film she talks about her early days of befriending the Notorious BIG (“Biggie had my back”) and helping to assemble Method Man and Mary J Blige’s 1995 hit You’re All I Need to Get By. She was a rising star in her early 20s working for a man who was “like a god” in the industry at the time. Simmons took her under his wing, a position that soon lost its luster when Simmons allegedly pulled her into a closet and tried to kiss her. She resisted his ongoing advances as politely as she knew she had to, given his position, but he increased his pursuit, allegedly exposing himself in her office soon after.
Dixon refers to him as a “tragic ADD puppy dog that I had to keep retraining”, a depressingly inevitable part of the job for women in many industries and one that the doc frames as something reflected in the kind of music Dixon was working on. Hip-hop is described as “misogyny over dope beats” but the film also makes sure to remind us that it’s prevalent in all genres, using lyrics from Tom Jones and Mick Jagger among others to show a casual sexism that’s existed throughout the history of music. (“That language set a tone,” someone says.)
It was in 1995 that life at Def Jam turned from degrading to wholly destructive. Dixon alleges that, after attending a party, Simmons offered to book her a car from his nearby apartment. It was the first time she was there with him alone and she suggested that waiting downstairs might be a wiser option. But he wanted her to listen to a demo. She offered to take the demo home and he asked her to remove it from a CD player in his bedroom. As she tried to figure out his hi-fi system, he emerged naked wearing a condom. “He just grabbed me and wrestled me to the bed,” she recalls.
She protested but was overpowered and remembers him telling her to “stop fighting” in a tone that was unfamiliar to her: “cold, menacing, detached”. Then she claims that he raped her.
“I was reduced to nothing in that moment,” she says. “I was trash … a physical device.”
Simmons allegedly thought this meant they now had a different relationship and told her they could now have sex regularly. In a meeting that week he asked her to sit on his lap. “He thinks I’m that person now,” Dixon says of the moment.
He has vehemently denied Dixon’s claim as well as the many other claims that came out as well. “These horrific accusations have shocked me to my core and all of my relations have been consensual,” he said in a statement. “I will relentlessly fight against any untruthful character assassination that paints me as a man of violence.”
After the alleged incident, Dixon left Def Jam and found a job at Arista where she continued her professional success under Clive Davis, working on two Grammy-winning albums in a row from Lauryn Hill and Santana. But when Davis left, his replacement LA Reid allegedly brought back the sort of toxic environment she’d hoped was left in her past. She claimed there was a “quid pro quo” environment where she was being sexualised and when she would turn down his overtures, he became “meaner and meaner”.
Dixon arranged an audition with a young, unsigned Kanye West who Reid referred to as “a waste of my time” while dressing her down in front of the office and with West within earshot. He then refused to attend a special performance she had set up with a similarly fresh-faced John Legend. She felt “doomed” and “dead in the water”.
Her music career ended before it had the chance to continue to flourish and she left the industry. “We all lose when brilliant women go away,” a voice in the documentary states.
In response, Reid’s statement read: “I’m proud of my track record promoting, supporting and uplifting women at every company I’ve ever run. That notwithstanding, if I have ever said anything capable of being misinterpreted, I apologize unreservedly.” He left his job at Epic Records in 2017 after an accusation of sexual harassment.
Dixon’s isn’t the only story shared in the documentary. Other women have come forward with stories of rape and sexual misconduct and we also hear their claims. “He just took, took, took what he wanted,” says musician Sheri Sher who alleges that Simmons assaulted her.
The documentary also adds important context not only with regards to the dangers faced by women in the music industry but the difficulty many women of colour face coming forward. There’s a nuanced discussion related to the guilt many black women often feel when accusing black men of sexual assault and how this makes them feel like traitors, feeding into a system that has forever hypersexualised and punished them. “I didn’t want to let the culture down,” says Dixon.
It’s a strong, emotive, substantive piece of work and one that largely relays testimonies that had already been vetted and legalled by the New York Times. So there remains a number of questions surrounding Winfrey’s very public departure as well as anguish from the women involved and the community at large. An open letter has been assembled by survivors of sexual misconduct and advocates, including Gloria Steinem, Marisa Tomei, Rosanna Arquette, Alyssa Milano and Thandie Newton, to show support. “We want them to know: We believe you. We hear you. You deserve to be seen,” it reads.
Winfrey has admitted that Simmons tried to pressure her into dropping the film but has denied that this affected her decision and earlier this week, she appeared on CBS to restate this. “This is not a victory for Russell,” she said. “I did not pull out because of Russell … I cannot be silenced by Russell Simmons after all I’ve been through.”
Instead she claims that she told the film-makers there were inconsistencies and she wanted them to add a wider context to the story while also standing by the women featured. The New York Times reported that Winfrey apparently sent a copy of the film to director Ava DuVernay who replied with “harsh” criticism. But as yet, there’s been no real elaboration which leaves a worrying dark cloud over a film with an important message.
“It was very disappointing and upsetting,” said producer Ziering. “We were concerned about the survivors and what the hell this is going to do to them.”
According to a piece in the Hollywood Reporter this week, the survivors have been going through what Dixon refers to as a “hellscape” with another accuser, the model turned domestic violence activist Sil Lai Abrams needing guidance from a trauma specialist.
“I feel like I’m experiencing a second crime,” Dixon said. “I am being silenced. The broader community is being intimidated. The most powerful black woman in the world is being intimidated.”
As it premieres, On the Record hopes not only to find distribution but to course correct its journey and reiterate its intention to bring light to the stories of women who not only want to be heard, but want to be believed as well.