With the possible exception of Queen, I can’t think of a less fashionable band to have liked as a teenager than The Bee Gees. Anyone caught with a freshly bought LP of the toothsome trio at my school would have the packaging ripped apart in the playground to shouts of ‘poly-bag week’; thus was the rule of law when it came to taste in music. I didn’t have any idea at the time that The Bee Gees had been around for more than a decade before their defining moment with the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, and this HBO documentary by Frank Marshall stretches the timeline to ensure that that moment is seen as both the pinnacle and the trough of their creative careers.
“Meaningless Songs in Very High Voices’ was the parody by The Hee Bee Gee Bees which charted when I was at school; this doc reaches beyond such snap impressions to show Robin, Barry and Maurice starting out with ambition and drive, recording hit after hit, but losing their mojo and heading to Miami to re-invent their sound in the mid-70’s. The tracks they contributed to John Badham’s ground-breaking disco film changed music, but also nailed their own development to the fast fading trend of disco. The immediate backlash against dance-music, described here as a ‘racist, homophobic book-burning’, forced the Bee Gees to vanish, although their song-writing created hit after hit including Woman in Love, Islands in the Stream, Chain Reaction, Heartbreaker and more.
While we await the Bradley Cooper movie on this subject, Marshall’s film follows the time-line exposed on the trailer; success, reinvention, ignominy, a secret come-back by stealth. There’s little time for projects like their soundtrack for Alan Parker’s Melody, not even mentioned here, and the focus is very much on the band’s relationship to pop culture rather to each other; Robin, Maurice and little brother Andy all had well-documented issues which are not explored in much detail here. The birth of tracks like Staying Alive are covered with Messianic zeal, but solo material barely rates a mention is dispatches. There is, I guess, only so much Bee Gees one can fit into two hours, and the rest is available elsewhere for those inspired to investigate.
From the plangent title downwards, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart has a specific mission, which is to re-habilitate the reputation of the band from the notion that they were defined by their flirtation with disco, and that mission is accomplished here. There’s a lot of waffle from Justin “I’m not high’ Timberlake, Coldplay and Oasis, but not enough insight into a band which seemed to change identity with the times; it’s perhaps not surprising that their songs were such great fits for artists with established personas and reputations, and a throwaway line about ‘writing as a woman’ begs a more creative investigation. But as a greatest hits package, Marshall’s film takes the obvious route forward, and doesn’t fumble the touchdown; the hits don’t lie, The Bee Gees were a phenomenon, and Marshall’s film tells their story with care, detail and affection.
Many thanks to NBCUniversal for access to this film. Link and trailer below.