For people of my parents generation, the Bee Gees are mainly remembered for one thing as the group with the shiny suits and chest hair whose falsettos soundtrack John Travolta strutting down a Brooklyn sidewalk and going crazy on the dance floor. They’re a group that came to symbolize the disco craze of the late ‘70s than instantly became a punchline once it went out of style.
You can’t exactly blame them for that. When the Bee Gees were at their peak, you couldn’t ignore them. From December 1977 to June 1979, they scored six consecutive number-one singles on the Billboard Hot 100 tying the Beatles for that feat before Whitney Houston eventually bested them. And that’s only scratching the surface of their impact. In 1978, their involvement on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack helped lead the album to #1 for 24 straight weeks becoming Billboard’s #1 album of that year. It was the best-selling soundtrack album of all time before the Whitney Houston led Bodyguard soundtrack overtook it and was the overall best-selling album of all time until Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The follow-up album, 1979’s Spirits Having Flown, while not a Fever style blockbuster was another big hit launching three more #1 songs.
There’s also the hits they wrote for their baby brother Andy Gibb and so many other artists. During the winter and spring of 1978, the group practically owned the top of the charts becoming the first act since the Beatles in 1964 to have the top two songs and for one week were writers of half of the songs in the Top 10. To say they were on top of the world would be an understatement at best.
Yet this era of success is just one of the many chapters that make up the careers of the Brothers Gibb. Before disco, they had found fame a decade earlier making British folky psychedelic pop with a string of hits that gave them comparisons to the Fab Four. After they fell with disco, they leaned into their songwriting abilities to write hit songs for other artists before encountering various tragedies along the way. But due to their blockbuster success with disco and its fallout, those other chapters tend to get lost in the discussion surrounding the Bee Gees, a discussion that the new HBO documentary on the group The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart hopes to change.
If you’re a music nerd like me, Broken Heart is a can’t miss treat. A lot of what’s told is pretty obvious if you know the story of The Bee Gees as I do but it’s done in a way that’s entertaining to watch. Instead of just hitting all the major biographical details in the most basic of ways, the film takes a deeper approach to tell its story. If you’re someone not familiar with their story or only know their big disco hits, you’ll find yourself learning a lot that you didn’t know and realizing how vast the Bee Gees’ career goes.
One thing you’ll notice right away about the film is that it wastes no time getting into the main subject of the Bee Gees’ career. Little time is delved on the upbringing of brothers Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb born on England’s Isle of Man before moving with their parents to Australia where they find local fame singing together before blowing up in England. Some time is spent reminiscing on their childhoods, their parents, and their early love for music but it’s clearly not the major focus here.
Directing the documentary is Frank Marshall, a filmmaker who doesn’t have a lot of directing credits with only four previous movies to his name. The last movie he directed came 14 years ago with the 2006 Disney Antarctic survival drama Eight Below. But as a producer, Marshall has had major success being involved in such big films as Back to the Future, Jurassic World, The Bourne Identity, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Sixth Sense, etc. He’s also had some musical documentary experience producing 2015’s Sinatra: All or Nothing At All and this year’s Laurel Canyon. Helping him out in producing are Nigel Sinclair, Jeanne Elfant Festa, and Mark Monroe all of whom have experience in producing highly acclaimed music documentaries with Sinclair and Festa producing 2016’s The Beatles: Eight Days A Week and 2011’s George Harrison: Living In The Material World and the three of them producing 2019’s Pavarotti making them the perfect fit to tell the story of the Bee Gees.
With Broken Heart, the filmmakers are given lots of resources in telling the Bee Gees’ story. The documentary has the full involvement of the Gibb family and estates with interviews from Barry, his wife Linda, the widows of Robin and Maurice, Maurice’s first wife and British pop star Lulu while Maurice and Robin are shown in prior footage. There’s also the people behind the music Albhy Galuten and Carl Richardson, studio engineers for the famed producer Arif Mardin who became the Bee Gees’ regular producers in the late ‘70s. There’s also former band members guitarist Alan Kendall, keyboardist Blue Weaver, and drummer Dennis Byron from the ‘70s era and guitarist Vince Melouney from the ‘60s era. We see footage from home videos, interviews, performances, and demos with highlights for me including studio footage of the group recording the hits “You Should Be Dancing” and “Tragedy.”
The most interesting interviews to me were with modern contemporaries that include Mark Ronson, Justin Timberlake, Chris Martin, Nick Jonas, and Noel Gallagher who discuss the greatness and uniqueness of the Bee Gees highlighting that their influence is more than disco. They each play a different role in their discussions with Ronson and Timberlake discussing the musical aspects like Ronson discussing the beat in “Stayin’ Alive” to Timberlake talking about their harmonies sounding like a horn section. Martin talks about the pressures of fame and inevitable backlash something he knows a lot about as the frontman of Coldplay. Jonas and Gallagher discuss being in a sibling group as they know very well as members of the Jonas Brothers and Oasis respectively. Gallagher especially gives some insightful words stating that brothers singing together is like “an instrument that nobody else can buy” while comparing their early records to the Beatles as some great ’60s guitar pop. Jonas for his part says “brothers it’s a very complicated thing.” (Gee you don’t say Nick!)
Another aspect I like about Broken Heart is showing the creative process behind the many legendary songs. Through these interviews, we learn a lot about how the brothers often wrote songs together in the studio. Each person brings their own cool story like how the drum track for “Stayin’ Alive” was a loop taken from “Night Fever” as Byron was away during the session taking care of his dying mother with Richardson and Galuten showing how it was done. That’s cool! Other highlights include the demo for “How Deep Is Your Love,” Barry discovering his signature falsetto on “Nights on Broadway,” the group naming their first single “New York Mining Disaster 1941” to get people’s attention after writing it in a studio blackout, and originally writing “To Love Somebody” for Otis Redding. There are also interesting facts including the tensions between Robin and Barry in the ‘60s over lead vocal duties leading to an early breakup and their wilderness period in the ‘70s where Eric Clapton, the Bee Gees’ label mate, encouraged them to move to Miami where he was recording to get a new experience and sound realizing them as an R&B group that wasn’t reaching their full potential.
As the film gets into the disco era, it takes an interesting turn in discussing the larger disco culture highlighting its origins as a Black and gay club phenomenon that had been going on through the entire ‘70s before it came to dominate the mainstream. It also gives context as to how big disco was in society during the late ‘70s as it became highly commercialized with footage of commercials for disco clothing, body shapers, Burger King, along with greedy cash grabs like the awful #1 novelty hit “Disco Duck.” We see veteran disco DJ Nicky Siano talk about this history arguing the music started to sound like garbage by this point and along with its multicultural roots begins to threaten people not into the lifestyle.
Enter Steve Dahl, a rock DJ in Chicago who got so angry about getting fired from his radio station when it switched to disco that he mounted a hard campaign against the music. We see him in full Army gear showing how he destroys a record and with Meat Loaf on a talk show singing “How Deep Is Your Love” on helium imitating the Bee Gees’ falsettos. He uses his hatred of disco to organize what’s been known as Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park during a Chicago White Sox game in July 1979 where young people brought disco records to burn but we quickly realize a dark undercurrent as Comiskey Park usher Vince Lawrence remembers seeing albums from Steve Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, and others that were by Black artists and that were clearly not disco. Lawrence doesn’t mince words when he describes Disco Demolition Night as a “racist, homophobic book burning.”
Amidst the scenes of the chaos in Chicago, we’re shown a completely different scene in Oakland, California where the Bee Gees are performing to a sold-out crowd the same night on the Spirits Having Flown tour, their first tour since before Saturday Night Fever. The brothers along with Andy are playing “You Should Be Dancing” to an ecstatic crowd seemingly oblivious to the backlash brewing that would very soon derail their career. Now radio stations were refusing to play their music as disco became a joke which meant that they couldn’t score any more hits. This backlash is funny when you consider the fact that the Bee Gees were clearly more than disco which various clips try to explain. Even their peak era songs like “How Deep Is Your Love,” “Too Much Heaven,” and “Tragedy” aren’t really much in the way of disco. As Barry notes, the songs at that point were more about how to use his falsetto rather than suiting any one genre.
It’s these scenes where the documentary starts to feel like it’s trying to be two things at once: a documentary on the Bee Gees while also a documentary on the history of disco. Obviously, both topics are tied together but it makes me think about how a separate documentary on the rise and fall of disco could better discuss the issues brought up regarding the bigoted connotations surrounding Disco Demolition Night. It could also bring up the uneasy fact that a music genre pioneered by minorities became a blockbuster success thanks to a straight white male group who sang for a movie about a straight white man who dances in the disco club that had nothing to do with the genre’s origins.
There is a silver lining to the backlash as the brothers smartly decide to move behind the scenes as songwriters and producers. Their first major work became a hit right out of the gate with Barbra Streisand’s 1980 album Guilty leading to lots of calls from other artists. A slideshow shows us the major hits they wrote during the ‘80s including Dionne Warwick’s “Heartbreaker,” Diana Ross’ “Chain Reaction,” and the big country duet “Islands In The Stream” between Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. People didn’t want to hear Bee Gees songs but were totally fine with hearing songs they wrote and produced for others.
The film notably omits some dark moments in The Bee Gees’ career like the disastrous 1978 Beatles-inspired movie musical Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band which the group starred in as well as their first album after the disco backlash, 1981’s Living Eyes, tanking hard after the massive success they had. It probably made sense not to let these events get too much in the way of the story but they do give some important context to the group’s history and how hard they fell.
Toward the end, sadness sets into the story once we know how things turn out for most of the brothers. The first tragedy occurred outside of the group with Andy, who launched as a teen idol Bee Gee with his first three songs going to #1 at the same time as Saturday Night Fever before drugs got the best of him. He died in 1988 at only 30 from an inflamed heart right when his brothers were about to make him a full member of the Bee Gees, something he dreamed about as a kid seeing the fame his brothers got. Then Maurice dies from cardiac arrest in 2003 at age 53 with Robin dying from cancer in 2012 at age 62. Hearing Barry say he can’t believe his brothers are gone and “I’d rather have my brothers all back here and no hits at all” just make you feel sorry for what he’s gone through. I certainly can’t imagine being the only one left in my family.
But we do get a happy ending or at least the best that you can get in this story. The backlash fades and the Bee Gees’ are now embraced again by the public. They’re inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Ed Sheeran performs “Massachusetts” at the 2017 Bee Gees Grammys tribute show, and as the credits roll in the ultimate show of perseverance we see Barry performing “Stayin’ Alive” at the 2017 Glastonbury Festival. Once worried about people not caring anymore about the music, the crowd was sure enjoying it with Barry in his 70s still singing in that unmistakable falsetto. The music is still very much alive.
Overall, Broken Heart is a documentary that shows its deep love for the Bee Gees giving a very favorable and sympathetic portrayal to a group that hasn’t gotten as much attention in music history despite the various sounds and styles they adapted to and how long they lasted. It helps to expand people’s understanding of the Bee Gees while making for an enjoyable watching experience. And after all, how can you go wrong hearing many of these great songs and what went into them. As Timberlake put it best, “There’s just nothing else to say about the Bee Gees except they were fucking awesome.”
The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart is currently streaming on HBO Max