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.”
The Frank Marshall-directed pic had been an official selection of the 2020 Telluride Film Festival before that fest was derailed by the pandemic. It tells the story of an iconic band that is way more than a symbol of the polyester disco era from when their soundtrack-fueled Saturday Night Fever. That was just one part of their evolution as musicians. Marshall has directed an intimate look at siblings Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb. They wrote more than 1,000 songs, including 20 No. 1 hits throughout their career.
Pic is a Polygram Entertainment presentation of a Kennedy/Marshall and White Horse Pictures production in association with Diamond Docs. Marshall produced alongside Nigel Sinclair and Jeanne Elfant Festa, and Mark Monroe, latter of whom wrote the script.
The Bee Gees story with all their tunes has been catnip and aside from a stage musical project with Barry Gibb, Elisabeth Murdoch and Stacey Snider at Sister are teamed with Steven Spielberg and Bohemian Rhapsody producer Graham King and scribe Anthony McCarten in developing with Paramount a big Bee Gees narrative film.
Interview with filmmakers Jeanne Elfant Festa & Mark Monroe
Amid our splintered pop-cultural moment, it’s hard to fathom how big the Bee Gees were. The band, formed all the way back in 1958 by brothers Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb, owned the 1970s in a way that seems inconceivable today. Not only did the Gibbs sell 120 million records and release nine chart-topping singles, but they also became the poster boys for the disco genre.
A new documentary, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, aims to convey the trio’s massive impact — including its musical influence, which persists in the present day. The film will have its premiere tomorrow, October 8, at the Dezerland Park Drive-In, where, from the comfort of your car, you can experience the rise of and backlash toward one of the most popular musical acts of the 20th Century.
The drive-in screening — which kicks off the Miami Film Festival’s fall presentation, Gems — is coincidentally located one block from Criteria Studios, where the Bee Gees laid down many of their hits, from “Jive Talkin'” to “Nights on Broadway.”
As one might expect, the city the Bee Gees called home beginning in 1975 plays a strong supporting role in How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.
“Eric Clapton suggested they come to Miami, where the sunshine helped their creative evolution,” says Jeanne Elfant Festa, the film’s coproducer. “We were able to include all this beautiful footage of Miami from the keyboardist’s Super 8 camera.”
“They were young guys. They came to Miami not just to make music, but to have fun,” adds writer and coproducer Mark Monroe. “The dance music in Miami, the different communities — all of that are part of the ingredients of the music that came.”
The Bee Gees famously showed off their new adopted home in the promo video for “Night Fever,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1978. In the video, cars are driving down Collins Avenue with the brothers superimposed over a neon-lit Sunny Isles Beach doing its best Vegas imitation. The long-gone beachside motels and delicatessens never looked more glamorous than when soundtracked to the disco classic.
But the filmmakers say their documentary goes far deeper than the familiar setting.
“We show how they pioneered the drum loop and the synthesizer,” Elfant Festa says by way of example. “There’s a scene where you can hear the evolution of the recording of the song ‘Nights on Broadway.'”
She says it wasn’t hard to persuade some of today’s biggest musical acts to speak about the Gibbs’ influence.
“We interviewed Nick Jonas, Mark Ronson, and Chris Martin from Coldplay. They all jumped to talk about how the Bee Gees influenced them,” Elfant Festa tells New Times. “After we already locked the picture, we showed it to Taylor Hawkins, the drummer of the Foo Fighters. He was asking us if it wasn’t too late to interview him. He loved the Bee Gees.”
The film also takes a serious look at the backlash to the band and the disco genre, culminating in 1979 when Chicago shock jock Steve Dahl staged the infamous Disco Demolition Night at the home of the White Sox, Comiskey Park. Though the Bee Gees are straight cis white men, How Can You Mend a Broken Heart posits that much of the resentment had its roots in bigotry.
“They became targets because of their success,” Monroe argues. “The Bee Gees were influenced by the R&B and dance music of minority groups — the discotheques were where Blacks, Latinos, and gays went to dance. There were a lot of people who wanted no part in that. Disco was a target, but I think it had as much to do with opening up of cultures in mainstream music.”
Still, How Can You Mend a Broken Heart is more musical celebration than societal analysis. It’s one that Elfant Festa claims might not be safe for these times of social distancing.
“It’s going to be hard for people to stay in their cars,” she says, “because they’re going to want to dance.”