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There’s an amusing anecdote in Frank Marshall’s dizzyingly comprehensive documentary tribute, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, recounting how Saturday Night Fever was being edited on the Paramount lot when a patronizing studio executive asked producer Robert Stigwood, “How is your little disco movie coming along?” It must have been sweet vindication for everyone involved to watch that low-budget 1978 film, spun out of a New York magazine article, become a worldwide blockbuster, generating one of the best-selling soundtrack albums of all time and unleashing a perfect storm of chart hits.
In ways good and bad, that massive commercial success came to define The Bee Gees, the group made up of brothers Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb, who wrote and performed many of the songs that were as essential to the movie’s pulse as John Travolta’s parading swagger. They crested as disco royalty, their spangled silver bomber jackets open to reveal lush thickets of chest hair, and their propulsive synth sounds and tight harmonies steering countless feet to the dance floor.
Release date: Dec 12, 2020
The three British white boys who grew up in Australia played a big part in the crossover of disco in America from Black and gay subcultures into the mainstream. But when disco was declared dead, its execution staged at a 1979 demolition night in Chicago’s Comiskey Park attended by tens of thousands that now looks like a fascist book-burning, the backlash hit them hard. The trio who had decreed “You Should Be Dancing,” were suddenly pariahs, exiled from radio play. There were even bomb threats at their live gigs.
Marshall’s densely packed documentary shows how much broader the Bee Gees’ footprint is in popular music history. More than just a disco phenomenon, they were gifted, incredibly prolific songwriters across a number of genres — the end credits note that they penned more than 1,000 songs, including 20 No. 1 hit singles in the U.S. and U.K. Their collaborative synergy was such that their songs were often written directly in the recording studio; at one point in the 1960s they released three albums in the space of a single year.
They emerged in the wake of The Beatles, parlaying their seamlessly blended three-part harmonies into some of the most gorgeous ballads of the era, spanning the bridge between folk and pop in songs like “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” “Massachusetts,” “Words,” “I’ve Just Gotta Get a Message to You” and “I Started a Joke.” Mark Ronson, one of several music luminaries interviewed here, talks about the widely covered “To Love Somebody” — a song written for Otis Redding, who died before he could record it — as having “always been in the ether.”
For younger audiences unfamiliar with the Bee Gees’ pre-disco output, the section covering their initial elevation to stardom in the ’60s will be a revelation. It’s a regrettable side effect of having to cover so much musical ground that the fast-moving film doesn’t spend more time on the group’s stellar back catalogue from that decade and into the early ’70s, before “Jive Talkin'” marked a chameleonic shift in their sound.
Barry is the last man standing since the deaths of Maurice, Robin and younger brother Andy, who had his own ascendancy as a teen pop heartthrob before struggling with addiction issues, succumbing to a heart attack at age 30 in 1988. Barry serves as the documentary’s connective tissue, reflecting back over the years from his home in Miami. But all four brothers are well-represented in preexisting interviews, and the extensive availability of home movies and performance clips dating as far back as their teen years in Australia makes this an archive-rich time capsule.
In addition to admiration for the Bee Gees’ pop virtuosity, there are useful insights from both Noel Gallagher and Nick Jonas on the complicated dynamic of brothers in a band together. “When you’ve got brothers singing, it’s like an instrument that nobody else can buy,” says Gallagher. But he later adds: “Making music with your family is equally the greatest strength and the greatest weakness you could ever have in a partnership.” Jonas hints at the minefield of competitive natures going back to childhood.
The film acknowledges that, with Barry and Robin alternating on lead vocals, there was rivalry from early on, with each of the brothers wanting individual recognition. Their initial superstardom came so quickly that Maurice recalls having six Rolls Royces before he turned 21. But that success brought the challenge of staying on top while balancing everybody’s clashing egos, and after virtually having grown up as triplets, their lives quickly began to separate once they became famous. Marshall and writer Mark Monroe don’t gloss over the friction that pulled the group apart at various times, but there is a sense of an authorized film treading lightly around these personal issues.
It goes into greater detail on the evolution of the Bee Gees’ sound; some of the most rewarding elements for music geeks will be the perspective of key producers and musicians. Eric Clapton, whose band Cream was also managed by Stigwood, encouraged the group to shift their production base from London to Miami in the mid-’70s, sparking a new creative bloom. Recording at Criteria Studios, they worked with engineer Karl Richardson, legendary Atlantic Records soul producer Arif Marden, and later, innovative producer Albhy Galuten on their biggest hits, forming a core backing band of Alan Kendall, Dennis Byron and Blue Weaver. Bill Oakes, the president of Stigwood’s record label, observes that the Bee Gees brought melody to disco.
There are fun recollections of how the “clickety-click” sound made by their car crossing the Biscayne Bay causeway while driving back and forth from Criteria became the rhythm foundation for “Jive Talkin’,” and how Marden nudged Barry to liberate his falsetto for the first time on “Nights on Broadway.”
That development became a signature element of the group’s sound, prompting fulsome appreciation here from superfan Justin Timberlake, who talks about their harmonies sounding like a horn section. Given that parody is the sincerest form of flattery, it’s a shame there’s no mention of the many comedy riffs the group spawned, like Jimmy Fallon and Timberlake’s “Barry Gibb Talk Show” on Saturday Night Live; Homer performing CPR on Moe to “How Deep Is Your Love” on The Simpsons; or pop parodists The Hee Bee Gee Bees, who reached No. 2 on the Australian charts in 1980 with “Meaningless Songs (In Very High Voices).”
Although the band was filling stadiums and selling more records than ever, the legitimacy of disco as a popular music genre was being undermined by a deluge of garbage recordings and tacky novelty songs like “Disco Duck.” One interesting point touched on that begs for further exploration is the degree to which racism and homophobia played a part in the disco demise, a theory that seems validated by footage of the mob of spectators storming the Chicago ballpark field where shock jock Steve Dahl led the destruction of thousands of records. Violence against vinyl.
Coldplay frontman Chris Martin makes some poignant observations on the bruising experience of a sudden plummet from the pop stratosphere. However, the Bee Gees, and Barry in particular, showed resilience by continuing to be productive during this period in the wilderness, writing and producing hits for other artists, like Barbra Streisand’s “Woman in Love,” Dionne Warwick’s “Heartbreaker,” Diana Ross’ “Chain Reaction” and Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers’ “Islands in the Stream.”
The film’s subtitle, How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, taken from the Bee Gees’ 1971 hit, is mildly misleading, feeding expectations of a more concentrated focus on the setbacks, losses and regrets. Celebration of the Rock & Roll Hall of Famers’ legacy is the prevailing tone, though there are certainly melancholy notes throughout, particularly in the final stretch, following Andy’s tragic death. This is amplified in a touching late concert clip of the group performing “Run to Me.” For both diehard and casual fans, Marshall’s entertainingly packaged film delivers a nostalgic tour back over the decades that shines a deserving spotlight on the group’s artistry, an element too frequently overshadowed by their phenomenal chart reign.
Production companies: Polygram Entertainment, Kennedy/Marshall Company, White Horse Pictures, in association with Diamond Docs
Distribution: HBO Documentary Films
Director: Frank Marshall
Screenwriter: Mark Monroe
Producers: Nigel Sinclair, Jeanne Elfant Festa, Mark Monroe, Frank Marshall
Executive producers: David Blackman, Jody Gerson, Steve Barnett, Nicholas Ferrall, Cassidy Hartmann, Ryan Suffern, Nancy Abraham, Lisa Heller
Director of photography: Michael Dwyer
Editors: Derek Boonstra, Robert A. Martinez
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