I would never qualify myself as a fan of 1970’s disco music, but I’ve always had an appreciation for The Bee Gees. I was just a young kid when the British-Australian trio of Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb were topping the charts and earning their unwanted tag as the “Kings of Disco”. But I knew their music thanks to my parents and the 8-track tape player in their white Chevrolet Malibu. My parents listened almost exclusively to 1960’s “oldies”, so I knew The Bee Gees were a thing well before the disco era. But like everyone else, even my folks were drawn to the group’s infectious 70’s sound.
The Bee Gees became global sensations and sold well over $120 million records throughout their career. But there was a sad side to their largely successful story. The new documentary “The Bee Gees: How Do You Mend A Broken Heart” chronicles their first taste of fame during the 60’s British Invasion, their breakup, and their eventual reunion which brought not only a brand new sound but also their rise to superstardom. They unwittingly became synonymous with the 70’s disco scene ￼and despite their best efforts to keep themselves and their music from being pigeonholed, the label eventually became too much for them to shake.
Director Frank Marshall doesn’t break the mold with his new film. It very much plays like a traditional documentary, nothing flashy or innovative. But man is it a compelling and eye-opening biography of the talented Gibbs brothers and their inspired careers. Marshall puts together segments of a recent conversation with Barry Gibb with archived interview footage of his late brothers to give the film its smoothly edited personal touch. Old managers, studio engineers, and bandmates add some insider perspective while celebrities from the music world like Justin Timberlake, Chris Martin of Coldplay, and Noel Gallagher of Oasis testify to the trio’s influence and talent.
Marshall immediately pushes back on the reductive notion that The Bee Gees were nothing more than a simple “disco band”, a label they never embraced. He starts with their inseparable childhood days with older brother Barry and twins Maurice and Robin aspiring to be musicians. He documents their success in the 1960’s including two #1 hits and an early sound that drew comparisons to The Beatles. Marshall also explores their unexpected breakup brought on due to the burden of fame.
During their split all three got married and matured leading to their eventual reunion. The vocal harmony was instantaneous as if they had never been apart, but the world had changed and the interest in The Bee Gees had dried up. That was 1974, two straight albums had tanked and the group had to start playing clubs to make ends meet. It all led to Miami, 1975 where their new sound was born with the release of “Jive Talkin”. Marshall highlights the process behind the group’s musical evolution – the brothers’ desire to be a band rather than a trio, the influence of soul and R&B on their new sound, and the surprise discovery of what would become Barry’s signature falsetto.
The movie spends a lot of time on the group’s highs including the pinnacle of their popularity following their work on the chart-topping “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack. But it also hits on the lows, including the sudden and sometimes threatening backlash the group faced after disco was put in the crosshairs of a few rabid haters with platforms. This is best realized in 1979’s infamous Disco Demolition Night riot at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Due to their popularity The Bee Gees, who resented being branded a ‘disco band’, became easy targets. Soon radio stations quit playing their songs and they found themselves on the outs.
While the brothers would go on to write hit songs for major stars such as Barbara Streisand, Celine Dion, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Pardon, their singing careers were never the same. It’s a sad reality especially considering there was nothing the trio could do to avoid it. Much more sobering is how the deaths of Maurice in 2003, Robin in 2012 and their younger brother Andy in 1988 looms over the entire film. Marshall doesn’t dwell on their passings, only mentioning it briefly. Still it’s knowledge that adds an emotional layer to their stories. “I can’t honestly come to terms with the fact that they’re not here anymore,” Barry laments in the movie’s closing moments. It’s a heartfelt reminder that Marshall’s movie is about a lot more than great careers and great music. “The Bee Gees: How Do You Mend A Broken Heart” is now streaming on HBO Max.
VERDICT – 4 STARS