THE BEE GEES: HOW CAN YOU MEND A BROKEN HEART
By Jason T Sparks
as seen at the Nashville Film Festival 2020
Barry, Maurice, and Robin Gibb were not unsung heroes of the music business. They weren’t eccentric geniuses toiling in obscurity, mainly known only to other musicians who discovered them and drew inspiration from them. They weren’t, in other words, R Stevie Moore, the subject of a brilliant documentary screened at Nashville Film Festival 2019.
Who they were, of course, was the Bee Gees, A-list global household-name pop stars with the kind of career for which souls are often sold. By the numbers alone, the Bee Gees are giants in popular culture; they sold 120 million records worldwide (by some counts, 220 million). Songs they wrote and performed took the number-one spot on the Billboard chart seven times—six of them released within the same year—and five songs the brothers simply wrote, but other stars performed also made the Billboard number-one spot. In 1978, they performed the majority of the tracks on the year’s best-selling album, which also won the Grammy for Album of the Year. Per Billboard, only the Beatles and the Supremes outsold them; per the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, they’re the sixth most successful act in history. Which, considering that the five acts ahead of them are The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Elvis, Garth Brooks, and Paul McCartney, ain’t half bad.
All of which to say: do we really need a documentary about the Bee Gees, if they’re so well-known? Frank Marshall decided that we did—after all, we know that they’re well-known, but we probably don’t know why, and, of course, we likely don’t know the Gibbs themselves. The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart sees to both.
It doesn’t break new ground as a documentary; in a film like this, one expects archival footage and talking heads, and that’s exactly what one gets (the talking heads, though, are intelligent choices—we get input, for instance, from Nick Jonas and Noel Gallagher, who can speak to the idea of being a pop star with one’s siblings). The archival footage is insanely thorough, including home movies shot by their parents, as well as tv appearances and concert footage.
What Marshall put into the doc is not ground-breaking, but that’s okay, because of what Marshall does with the content. Tho historiography has changed the discussion, history teachers once loved to debate about whether or not history is propelled by movements or “Great Men.” Marshall lays out for us here that the Bee Gees were the result of both.
On the Great Men side of the equation, we find a lot of individuals who put the lads on the path. We meet Hugh Gibbs, their father, who encouraged them to perform and who helped them succeed—mainly by sending demos of his gifted sons to Brian Epstein, who was managing The Beatles at the time. Epstein is impressed, but the Fab Four are his priority, so he fends them off to a co-worker, whom we also meet: Robert Stigwood—the RS in RSO Records, which becomes a juggernaut in the late Seventies, largely on the strength of the Gibbs. Stigwood will make choices that impact the band’s history, as will his label’s distribution partner in America, legendary Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun—primary among those decisions the assignment of Arif Mardin, a legendary producer of soul music, to produce albums for the lads.
On the movements side of the argument, Marshall also makes a decent case for the fate of the Bee Gees being somewhat beyond their control, especially as they reaped the whirlwind from Saturday Night Fever. That album (and movie) are forever emblemaic of the music most of us associate with the 70s—disco—and Marshall uses his talking heads and archival footage to show what disco did to the Bee Gees, and what the Bee Gees did to disco. The music that had originated in black and gay nightclubs in New York City finally found its way into the mainstream, and just as it was beginning to lose its grip on the pop charts, the brothers Gibb launch it back into the stratosphere—and towards its own demise. While the Bee Gees are touring to packed houses, disco becomes overly commercial and, in some instances, outright silly, and the backlash begins. Marshall then uses his documentary tools to introduce us to one Steve Dahl. In 1979, Dahl is a DJ at a rock radio station in Chicago; pandering to his base, Dahl conceives of Disco Demolition Night, wherein fans bring thousands of disco records to Comiskey Park to blow them up during a White Sox game. If you know your music history, you’ve probably heard of it; what you haven’t heard, until Marshall presents it to you, is the usher who was working Comiskey that night and, digging through the doomed records, finds not only disco, but albums by Isaac Hayes and the Jackson Five—in other words, black artists are being lumped in and slated for demolition as well. What you also haven’t heard is Barry Gibb revealing that, in the wake of the incident, their tours had to be accompanied by Secret Service and FBI details. For the crime of singing songs that a bunch of people like, the Gibbs receive death threats.
The real strength of this documentary, however, is in the moments when Marshall presents to us how much of the band’s success was not due to powerful industry figures or cultural moments, but due to the Gibbs being the individuals they were. An inevitable takeaway from this film is that all of the Gibbs were, at the end of the day, extremely gifted musicians, and we’re given ample evidence of that. We learn that their first single, New York Mining Disaster 1941, started from nothing more than Barry absent-mindedly strumming a guitar. We learn that the brothers drove across a bridge every day to get to their recording studios in Miami; cars going over this bridge create a distinct WA-bump WA-bump sound, which they eventually turn into the beat at the core of Jive Talkin’. We learn that Robert Stigwood commissions them to create songs for the soundtrack of a movie he’s producing based on a New York magazine article about disco, and they produce five songs—three days later—several of which reach # 1, one of which is ultimately lauded by the British Heart Foundation as an incredible help in performing CPR (thus helping someone, you know, stay alive).
What lingers, however, is that these global icons were real human beings, originally goofy kids from Australia, and their primary spokesman is now Barry Gibb himself. He has to be; he is, unfortunately, the last living member of the group. We see him as a wistful elder statesman, puttering around his Miami estate, reminiscing, finally making this devastating declaration: “Yeah, we ‘ad loads of success…I’d give it all up to have ‘em back.” It hurts, but thankfully, it’s followed by footage of Barry performing at 2017’s Glastonbury Festival, singing his disco hits to a crowd who (1) are eating it up (2) aren’t old enough to remember when the songs were new. One is left with a thorough examination of what turns a mere mortal into an icon, and what it means to be an icon but still be a mere mortal.
The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart has been acquired by HBO Documentary Films. According to Live 365 “The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart will premiere on HBO later this year before streaming on HBO Max.”