The first feature-length documentary about the legendary band who wrote more than 1,000 songs, created twenty number one hits and sold more than 220 million records to date.
Just because you’re famous, doesn’t mean you’re immune from petty sibling arguments. One of my favourite moments in the illuminating, entertaining and musically joyous documentary The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart, is when Robin Gibb leaves the band in 1969 after falling out with older brother Barry.
Both were happy to use Robin’s twin Maurice as a go-between in their squabbles, and both had a habit of calling up the music press to bitch about the other, leading to the gloriously prissy-sounding NME headline: “Barry says Robin ‘extremely rude'”. It’s a perfect example of adult children reverting to their childhood roles whenever they have an argument.
Frank Marshall’s film is a cautionary tale about fame and family, and an exercise in setting the record straight, making sure that one of the most successful groups of all time gets their due: as songwriters, singers, and musical survivors.
Since the collapse of disco in the late ’70s, the group has been more mocked than lauded, despite their extraordinary successes and longevity. I’m probably guilty of that myself, though since watching this film, downloading several albums and then watching it again, I am now a proselytising convert, posting endlessly on Twitter about them and scaring innocent ramblers who come across me walking my dog while I belt out such classics as Nights On Broadway, If I Can’t Have You and You Should Be Dancing.
Those are all mega-hits from their disco days, though the film takes us right back to the ’60s when, as Oasis’s Noel Gallagher points out, they sounded just like early Beatles.
Unsurprisingly, Gallagher is astute about what happens when siblings sing together, the magic and musicality: “I always say that making music with your family is equally the greatest strength and the greatest weakness you could ever have,” he says, noting that egos drive you to the top but those conflicting egos can then make it hard to stay there.
The Gibb brothers (Barry, twins Robin and Maurice, and younger brother Andy) were born on the Isle of Man, but emigrated to Australia with their parents in the 1950s. Singing together from childhood, by the late ’60s the older three were back in the UK, trying to make it big.
Barry Gibb – now 74 and the only surviving Bee Gee – is at pains to point out that his memories are his alone, that his brothers’ would be different. To drive the point home, we immediately cut to a 1999 interview, with Maurice reminiscing that Barry told them as children that one day they’d be really famous, followed by Barry’s different recollection: “all three of us had the same understanding that we were going to be famous, come hell or high water.” (Maurice’s interview from the late ’90s, cut up through the film, is a joy; the Bee Gee I knew least about, by then he was wryly funny and content after some turbulent decades.)
Soon after returning to England the Bee Gees were hitting both the UK and US charts; on their first trip to the States, Barry was asked to write a song for Otis Redding. The result was the agonisingly beautiful To Love Somebody; music producer Mark Ronson says Barry’s vocal gives him chills to this day. (Redding died in a plane crash before he had a chance to record the song himself.)
The Gibbs had an uncanny ability to write in ways that fitted the musical zeitgeist; the film implies they were lifting up genres rather than appropriating them, though it isn’t really explored. Despite their chart domination during disco, Marshall and writer Mark Monroe examine their influence more on personal level rather than a wider one. Paradoxically individual lows are often glossed over: brief mentions of drugs, and of Andy’s addictions and early death.
Some excellent commentators put the band into context – from their musical influences, to the reasons for the collapse of the disco boom. Academic and singer-songwriter Mykaell Riley highlights Massachusetts‘s gospel and folk influences, as well as the band’s ability to craft a song that can reflect your own circumstances: “I didn’t know where the hell Massachusetts was but I found myself singing it and translating it to where I was from.”
They were hugely influenced by Black music, starting with the harmonising Mills Brothers, long before disco. “I thought those guys were actually an R&B band that hadn’t really worked that out yet,” says Eric Clapton about the Bee Gees, encouraging them to record an album in Miami after an early-70s popularity slump.
Fashions by their nature go from covetable to laughable in the blink of an eye. And with the Bee Gees so intrinsically linked to disco – a cultural moment that transcended its New York origins, partly because of the 40 million-selling Saturday Night Fever soundtrack – it’s not surprising that with their shiny outfits, falsetto singing and big hair, when disco fell from grace so did they.
The rage against disco – music originally given voice in Black and gay clubs – reached its zenith with Disco Demolition Night in Chicago’s Comisky Park in July 1979. House music pioneer Vince Laurence was working as an usher that day and noticed many of the records being destroyed weren’t disco at all, but R&B records by Black artists. It was, he says, “a racist, homophobic book-burning.” The Bee Gees were in the middle of their own highly successful tour at this point, though soon – less than two years after the release of that record-breaking soundtrack – as a band they were almost personae non gratae, kicked off radio station playlists.
Coldplay‘s Chris Martin, who arrived on the music scene more than 30 years after the Bee Gees first tasted fame, puts it well, pointing out that bands of his generation were prepared for backlash while those on the first wave of pop superstardom were not.
Concert footage gives an idea of the scale of the Bee Gees’ fame, but also shows an endearing delight at performing. Watching talented people create something is always a joy, and hearing the original demo cassettes of now-classic songs, or producer Albhy Galuten explaining the creation of the innovative drum beat loop in Staying Alive, is like holding an ear up to history. Maurice explains their writing process as “becoming one mind”. Over 40 years on, Blue Weaver, who worked on How Deep Is Your Love, is almost in tears describing how the song came to be. Chris Martin unknowingly echoes Barry Gibb when he says that “a songwriter doesn’t really write songs, he receives songs.”
Maurice died unexpectedly in 2003; Robin died of cancer in 2012. Barry is still writing and performing. “They’re a brilliant chapter in the book of music,” says Gallagher, while Barry has the last word: the Gibb brothers did what they set out to do, but “I’d rather have them all back here and no hits at all.”
The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart is available on Sky Documentaries now. (One Night Only, their Las Vegas concert from 1997, is also available on Sky Arts)
Read my article Holy BeeGees-us! My journey from eh? to bee
Watch the trailer below: