Movie review: HBO’s Bee Gees documentary shows how the group’s music has managed to stay alive
Do you have a favorite Bee Gees song? How about a favorite Bee Gee? For the younger members of this readership, do you know who the Bee Gees were?
They were the British trio of the Gibb brothers: Barry and (three years younger) twins Robin and Maurice. They knew early on that they could sing, that they had the special gift of sibling harmony (think of the Everly Brothers, the Beach Boys). They did it on stages, then they moved into recording studios. They made the Top 20 chart two dozen times, with nine songs hitting number one. Constantly reinventing themselves, they moved from longing ballads (“To Love Somebody,” “I Started a Joke”) to exciting dance numbers (“You Should Be Dancing,” “Stayin’ Alive”).
Getting back to those questions, my favorite Bee Gees song is “Marley Purt Drive” from their “Odessa” album. My favorite Bee Gee is Robin, whose transcendent voice still makes me melt (check out “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You”).
Frank Marshall’s documentary stretches from home movies of them as kids to segments last year of sole remaining Bee Gee Barry - Maurice died in 2003, Robin in 2012 - thinking out loud about the fact that his immediate family is gone, but he has fantastic memories.
The film is a collection of those memories, some from Barry, others, in separate interview sessions with the three brothers in 1999. Still more are told through photos and archival footage, in the studio, at play, in old TV clips, a great deal of it onstage.
It opens with a clip of their gorgeous harmonies at a 1979 concert in Oakland, while they were still riding the huge wave of popularity that sprung from their songs on the soundtrack of “Saturday Night Fever.” But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. The Bee Gees story is a rocky ride of ups and downs, successes and failures, and them, at one point, moving from being pop stars to pariahs.
In the 1999 interviews, each Gibb brother chats about how the band started, how their sound developed, memories of certain gigs and each other. Added to that are interviews with their label mate Eric Clapton, Maurice’s former wife and British pop star Lulu, and Noel Gallagher, who knows a bit about sibling harmonies from working with his brother Liam in Oasis.
We find out that all three Gibbs decided early on that they were going to become famous. There’s background on the creation of their first hit “New York Mining Disaster 1941.” We discover that, at least in their case, success leads to fame, fame leads to inflated egos, and all of that led to inner turmoil and, in 1969, a breakup. Barry, in 2019, recalls, “Our three lives were now different lives,” and in 1999 says, “It was really me and Robin who were in conflict; Maurice was in the middle.”
But change was routine, almost always due to the people they worked with, among them producer-promoter-label owner Robert Stigwood, label owner Ahmet Ertegun (who suggested that Barry add falsetto singing to the mix), and producer Arif Mardin (who moved them toward an R&B sound).
They were mainstream stars in the late-’60s, had gotten back together but were worried about their musical future by the mid-’70s - when they again turned things around for the better with a new sound on the single “Jive Talkin’” - and hit astonishing heights with their contributions to the disco-drenched “Saturday Night Fever,” which became, at the time, the biggest selling album in the history of music. They were on top again. What could go wrong? Everything, in the form of the anti-disco movement, which soon toppled them from their perch, leaving them confused and frustrated.
It’s an ever-changing story, one that again turned positive when the brothers decided to write songs for other people. Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, and Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton did well by them.
Filled with Bee Gees hits and lesser-known songs (“Whisper Whisper” is another gem) spinning in the background, the film ends with a return to Barry in 2019, wistful, a bit sad, and always thinking about his brothers, saying, “Everything we set out to do, we did, against all odds.”
“The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken heart” premieres on HBO on Dec. 12 at 8 p.m.
Ed Symkus can be reached at email@example.com.
“The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart”
Written by Mark Monroe; directed by Frank Marshall
With Barry Gibb, Maurice Gibb, Robin Gibb