Barry Gibb returns to the Bee Gees’ music via Nashville
For his latest album, Barry Gibb teamed up with some of Nashville’s biggest stars to record “Greenfields,” in which they perform some of The Bee Gees’ greatest hits. The last surviving Gibb brother talked with “CBS This Morning” co-host Anthony Mason about returning to their catalogue, and about the new HBO Max documentary about the group, “The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” which he says is too painful for him to watch.
The Bee Gees created music for nearly five decades, but their legacy is often reduced to a brief period in the late Seventies when they became the most famous disco band on the planet thanks to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.
So when director Frank Marshall and producer Nigel Sinclair approached Barry Gibb for a documentary, the last living Bee Gee asked what they had in mind. “We said we wanted to reintroduce him to his audience, because time has passed,” Sinclair tells Rolling Stone. “He said, ‘If you guys will do that, I’ll give you everything.’”
The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, out December 12th on HBO, aims to tell the band’s whole saga from start to finish. It features rare footage and new interviews with Barry Gibb from his home in Miami, as well as interviews with his late brothers Robin and Maurice. Much of the footage was supplied by the Gibb family, who gave Marshall complete creative independence. “When we talked to [Maurice’s widow] Yvonne Gibb, she remembered that they had some eight-millimeter footage that was in a shoebox under a bed somewhere,” Marshall explains. “Talking to the family was really important.”
The film chronicles the band’s upbringing in Australia, their relationship with manager Robert Stigwood, their rise to fame in the late Sixties in England, and their global revival in the late Seventies with Saturday Night Fever, which stayed at Number One on the Billboard Album Chart for an astonishing 24 consecutive weeks. The group’s backing band and producers weigh in on the group’s creative process: keyboardist Blue Weaver tears up recalling how he and Barry came up with the melody for “How Deep Is Your Love,” while producers Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson recreate the famous drum loop on “Stayin’ Alive.” “They went to the top of the mountain with the Bee Gees,” Sinclair says. “Then, as it happens with bands and engineers and producers, they moved on to another life. They were reliving this moment.”
Marshall also interviewed members of brother bands, including Oasis’ Noel Gallagher and Nick Jonas of the Jonas Brothers. They breakdown the joys of making music with family members, and the brutal tensions that comes with it. “When you’ve got brothers singing, it’s like an instrument that nobody else can buy,” Gallagher says. “You can’t go buy that sound in a shop.”
“We could have done a whole film just on Noel Gallagher’s interview,” Sinclair says. “Of all the projects that we’ve worked on, it was the one where everybody you asked would say yes. However famous people are, there’s all sorts of reasons why they don’t want to be interviewed. Eric Clapton doesn’t [usually] give interviews, so that was amazing.” Justin Timberlake also appears, praising the band to such extreme measures that he promises the cameramen he’s not high. “It was so fun to talk to him, I forgot we were doing the interview,” Marshall laughs. “He was so enthusiastic about them and their musical gifts.”
The film also delves into unpleasant moments in their career, from Robin getting booed offstage after his first solo show in 1970 to the backlash they faced following Disco Demolition Night in Chicago’s Comiskey Park nine years later. “Let’s all grow up, we’re just a pop group,” Barry urges in an archival interview. “I don’t think there’s any reason to chalk us up because we existed in the Seventies. And we would like to exist in the Eighties — does anybody mind if we exist in the Eighties? Thank you.” (In 1988, the band casually summed up their hatred of “Stayin’ Alive” to Rolling Stone: “We’d like to dress it up in a white suit and gold chains … and set it on fire.”)
However, the fiasco of the 1978 film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — starring the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton, and Steve Martin — isn’t mentioned at all in the documentary. “There was no reason to put it in,” Marshall says. Adds Sinclair: “We deal with other things that were challenges and some humiliating things that happened to them, but their experience there didn’t move their creativity forwards.”
In addition, the film only briefly touches on the Eighties and Nineties. “We do deal with it the last 10 minutes of the film,” Sinclair says, alluding to footage from their incredible One Night Only tour in 1997. “But we were trying to pick the mountaintop moments.”
The death of Maurice Gibb in 2003 and Robin Gibb in 2012 means that it now falls squarely on Barry to keep the legacy alive. He plays Bee Gees classics on occasional solo tours and in January he’s releasing the LP Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers Songbook, where he revisits many of their most iconic songs as duets with country stars. But memories of his brothers are never far from his head. “I honestly can’t come to terms with the fact that they’re not here anymore,” he says near end of the movie, staring out at the Miami skyline. “I’d rather have them all back here than no hits at all.”
Wherever you currently land on the subject of the Bee Gees (Forgotten glitter gods? Perpetual punchline?), director Frank Marshall’s thorough and beautifully appreciative HBO documentary, “The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” will get you where you need to be — which, I can practically promise, is a sublime state of awe.
An exemplary lesson in how to make a revealing rockumentary, “The Bee Gees” (premiering Saturday) will satisfy lifelong skeptics and loyal fans. It’s less of the usual tract (we had them all wrong!) and more of a reckoning with the profound degree of artistry and accomplishment that should be the last word on any Bee Gees story. The movie is also a unique consideration of the phenomenon of rise and fall, and how one learns to live with it.
Spending almost no time on a deep probe of the biographical 1950s family dynamics of the Gibbs of Brisbane, Australia, it instead heads straight into the recurring theme of success and fame as a matter of raw determination: Hugh Gibb, the father of Barry and twins Robin and Maurice, was a musician who simply believed his sons’ harmonizing vocals and knack for songwriting deserved as much or more attention than, say, the Beatles. He wrote to Beatles manager Brian Epstein and offered up his cheerfully ambitious offspring; Epstein handed them over to a subordinate, Robert Stigwood, and the rest is pop-music history.
But what kind of history and why? This is where Marshall’s film succeeds. With archival footage and music cues that will invariably lure you out of your chair (or have you choked up during those achingly perfect chord progressions in the band’s ballads), “The Bee Gees” insists the Gibbs’s musicianship and prolonged success is as impressive as anyone in the rock pantheon. The film also has an adept awareness that such statements are always up for careful review and heated debate. No greater authority than Barry Gibb himself, the band’s sole survivor at 74, can confirm the ways in which celebrity stories, and images, change with time.
“I am beginning to recognize the fact that nothing is true,” he says at the film’s opening. “Nothing. It’s all down to perception. My immediate family is gone, but that’s life. It’s the same thing in every family, that someone will be left in the end. [At] this time in life, I have fantastic memories, but everybody’s memories are different. So they’re just my memories, you know?”
In other words, “The Bee Gees” is years too late to present the fullest possible account, relying on past documentary interviews with Maurice (who died in 2003) and Robin (who died in 2012) to supplement the narrative of a band that continually recalibrated itself to radio’s whims. Inspired by the work of others (including Otis Redding and the Mills Brothers) in a time when appropriation was just part of the game, their greatest gift to music could have started and ended with the writing and recording of their much-covered 1967 hit ballad “To Love Somebody.”
The footage and music from the band’s initial dalliance with fame is as much or more fascinating than the “Saturday Night Fever” superstardom that lurked ahead. As noted by Coldplay singer Chris Martin, who considers himself something of an expert on pop-star backlash, the Bee Gees were among the first groups to understand that long careers in the recording industry come with stretches that are as low as any high. Ego clashes were complicated by familial resentments. Oasis’s Noel Gallagher observes that making music with family members is “the greatest strength and the greatest weakness you can have.” Bee Gees fan Nick Jonas agrees: “Brothers, in general, is a very complicated thing.” One wishes the movie went even more deeply on this — the depth with which Barry, Robin and Maurice loved each other comes through; the darker moments often don’t.
Robin briefly went solo, and wouldn’t talk to Barry. (The good-humored Maurice says he always had to be the “Mr. Fix-It” between the two.) The 1970s dawned with another big hit (“How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”) but, even reunited, the brothers yearned to find a new sound. The supportive Stigwood, who by now had his own label at Atlantic, urged the Bee Gees to do what his other big client, Eric Clapton, had done — move to Miami and experiment.
“Those guys were actually an R&B band that hadn’t really worked that out yet,” Clapton observes.
It is here that “The Bee Gees” makes an enlightening argument for the kind of musicianship that happens at the studio control board. It’s not so much about manipulation as it is a startling degree of precision and perfectionism. “Jive Talkin’,” a revelatory new Bee Gees hit in 1975, was divined from the rhythm produced by car tires speeding across a Miami bridge. Working with producer Arif Mardin on the song “Nights on Broadway,” Barry was pushed to improvise near the song’s end, eliciting a sonic falsetto he never knew he had. (“Blamin’ it all! Blame it on the nights on Broadway!”) That, more than anything, put the Bee Gees’s stamp on popular culture — and again borrowed heavily, the film notes, from such bands as the Spinners and Stylistics.
Their new sound leads, of course, to a level of fame and riches the brothers never imagined. Stigwood asked the band to add some songs to the soundtrack of a movie he was producing about the flourishing disco scene in Brooklyn. To persuade the studio to release “Saturday Night Fever” in as many theaters as possible, Stigwood promised to attach a No. 1 hit to it in advance, leaving it to the Bee Gees to come up with “the best love song you’ve ever written.” They delivered, with “How Deep Is Your Love,” followed by “Stayin’ Alive” and “Night Fever,” on a double album that eventually sold 45 million copies.
In the relentless pursuit of hits, the Gibbs were remarkably unfazed by popularity. Rather than reject it or treat it in an aloof manner, they always seemed to acquiesce to it. The point, after all, is to be adored.
Living in their own glitzy bubble, they were completely unaware, while performing in Oakland on July 12, 1979, that a belligerent rock DJ in Chicago, Steve Dahl, had summoned tens of thousands of listeners to a White Sox doubleheader at Comiskey Park for a “Disco Demolition Night” rally. Fans could get into the game for 98 cents if they brought a disco album to add to a heap that were to be blown to smithereens on the outfield. Plenty of those albums were Bee Gees records; Dahl used to inhale helium on the air to do a mocking imitation of the band.
The event ended, deplorably, in a riotous melee that police had to break up. House music pioneer Vince Lawrence, who was working that night as a teenage usher, remembers seeing a disproportionate number of Black artists in the album pile. For many, Dahl’s “Disco Sucks!” movement took on the pall of a fascist uprising. “It was a book burning. It was a racist, homophobic book burning,” Lawrence says. “And the Bee Gees got caught up in that, because they were part of that culture that was lifting a lot of people up.”
The brothers were hurt and confused by the sudden backlash; record companies started dropping disco acts and everyone’s gaze was about to turn toward MTV. Asked about it then, Barry grew testy with an interviewer and looked angrily into the camera: “Does anybody mind if [the Bee Gees] exist in the ’80s, thank you?”
Yet “The Bee Gees” hardly ends on a note of bitterness. The brothers reinvented themselves once more, this time as master collaborators and surefire love-song wizards writing for others, including Barbra Streisand (“Guilty,” “A Woman in Love”), Dionne Warwick (“Heartbreaker”); Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers (“Islands in the Stream”); and more. Respect came in due time (including a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1997) as did a recurring theme of loss.
“I can’t honestly come to terms with the fact that [Robin, Maurice and their younger brother Andy] are not here anymore. I’ve never been able to do that,” Barry says. “I’d rather have them here and no hits at all.”