One of the things that made the Beatles, when they first arrived, seem magical was the uncanny way the look and sound of all four of them matched up. For all their iconic differences, they had variations on the same thick billowy dark hair, gleaming lemon-shaped smile, and Liverpool singsong and mocking twinkle. They seemed as related as brothers.
The Bee Gees, of course, were brothers (there were three of them), a fact that in itself isn’t remarkable, though like the Beatles they rhymed in ways that were at once visual, temperamental, and sonic. Born in the U.K. and raised (mostly) in Australia, they had different versions of the same overbite (though Barry had the handsome-jock version, Robin looked like a gopher, and Maurice was the cute everyman). All three exuded an angelic serenity. And those voices! To say that the Gibb brothers blended together with seamless perfection wouldn’t do the sound they created justice. United by a silky timbre that was in their DNA, those voices, crooning and soaring, often into the higher register, fused as gorgeously as the colors of a rainbow.
“The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” which premieres Saturday, Dec. 12, on HBO, is a gratifying, conventional, heartfelt documentary that tells the story of one of the great pop groups, but part of the film’s excitement is how thoroughly it explores the question of where, exactly, the Bee Gees fit into the pop firmament. How deep was their greatness? Even if you love them (as I do), that’s not such an easy question to answer. There is, of course, the God-like strata of pop music, the rarefied upper echelon of Olympus: the Beatles, the Stones, the Beach Boys, Dylan. And the Bee Gees weren’t quite there. Those artists were revolutionaries whose music remade the culture. The Bee Gees, in their incandescent and sublimely melodic way, worked inside idioms they didn’t create — in the late ’60s they sounded like the Beatles with a touch of Herman’s Hermits (whereas the Beatles sounded like no one but themselves), and in the ’70s they were dance-pop avatars playing with a form they both followed and heightened. Yet you could make a case (I would) that “Stayin’ Alive,” along with “Billie Jean,” is the most stupendous pop song of the last 45 years.
The Bee Gees elevated catchiness to a kind of transcendence. The blissed-out harmonies, the melodic rapture that caressed you with its melancholy sweetness (“How-w-w-w can you stop…the sun from shining?…What makes the world go round?”), the way their songs had unexpected chord changes that could make an emotion leap into the next dimension — if you didn’t like the Bee Gees, it’s probably safe to say you don’t like pop music. They wrote over 1,000 songs, including 20 number-one singles in the U.S. and the U.K., and those songs became the soundtrack to a lot of people’s lives.
If you do love the Bee Gees, or just like them a lot, or even if you’re too young to have grown up with them and are curious, “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” is a movie you’ll want to see. Directed by Frank Marshall, it isn’t just a nostalgia trip (though how could it not be?). It tells the Bee Gees’ story from the ground up, with never-before-seen archival footage and lots of highly illuminating talking heads (the clips of Robin and Maurice, who died in 2012 and 2003, respectively, are lifted from an extensive interview conducted in 1999).
Barry Gibb, who is now 74, appears before the camera as a more wizened version of himself, with thin white hair and a voice that dips into gravel, but the sense of looking back that he brings is quite moving. The film examines the Bee Gees’ vast array of influences and dizzying ups and downs on the pop charts, and though it doesn’t get too much into their personal lives, it touches on enough of their rivalries — mostly between Barry and Robin — to give you a sense of where they meshed with one another and where they didn’t. In its middlebrow celebratory way, “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” reveals the Bee Gees’ saga to be one of the most fascinating and, at times, awe-inspiring in the history of pop.
We think of the Bee Gees as extraordinarily popular, which they were, but my God, the whiplash series of fades and comebacks they experienced! Put on the map by their musician father, who was like Joe Jackson or the Beach Boys’ dad minus the sadism, they’d sung together professionally in Brisbane since the late ’50s (they started when Robin and Maurice, who were twins, were just five), and they sounded like the missing link between the Everly Brothers and the Fab Four. The Beatles, in effect, were who they’d always wanted to be (floppy hair, three-part harmony, pop as an elevated art form), so they sent off a letter to the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, who said: Let’s give them to Robert Stigwood (who was from Australia and was an associate of Epstein’s company, NEMS).
Stigwood loved them and signed them. He was a true believer. And the Bee Gees, moving to London, brought off something sly: They made themselves part of the British Invasion. Their first single, “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” was released in April 1967, and it was a hit; they never looked back. Other hits followed. We see a clip of Robin standing solo in the music video for “I Started a Joke,” and it’s one of the most beautifully forlorn things you’ve ever heard. But by 1969, the Bee Gees were played out. Their records were beginning to tank, and the rivalry between Barry and Robin, who were both lead singers, had reached a fallout point.
They broke up — a dissolution that didn’t last. And after they reunited, in the middle of 1970, the music they made, starting with “Lonely Days,” was different: more mature, more hauntingly lyrical. I will testify that “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” released in late 1971, had the trancelike effect on the radio that the Carpenters’ “(They Long to Be) Close to You” did. Listening to that song, it was as if time itself was standing still, as if all the tumult of the counterculture were melting away.
So the Bee Gees got big again — and then, before you know it, they were has-beens again. It was almost in their nature to flow in and out of the culture. They were saved, in a very real way, by Eric Clapton, who’d rejuvenated his own career with “461 Ocean Boulevard,” recorded in Miami. Clapton told them to get out of England and do an album in America — specifically, at the Miami recording studio, Criteria, where he had made his album. They took his advice, hooking up with the record producer Arif Mardin, who’d worked with a number of prominent R&B artists, and the result was “Main Course,” which included the sublimely percolating “Jive Talkin’.” Inspired by the clackety-clack of car tires on the rickety bridge they rode over each day to get to the studio, it was the song that, in 1975, relaunched them into the stratosphere as a dance band. And you know what came next.
“How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” is full of terrific stories, like the one about how Robert Stigwood, in 1967, took Barry to see Otis Redding at the Apollo Theater. He introduced the two and said that he wanted Barry to write a song for Otis. “To Love Somebody” was that song, but Redding died before he could record it. And as timeless as the Bee Gees’ version is, you get chills imagining how he would have done it.
Robin Gibb explains that the group always wrote their lyrics in the studio the day they recorded them. Which suggests that these weren’t ripped-from-the-heart poems; the Bee Gees were working in the Brill Building tradition of knocking the song out. There’s a funny anecdote about how during the recording of “Main Course,” they’d all been to New York and wanted to write a song about it, so they came up with a starry-eyed number called “All the Lights on Broadway.” Ahmet Ertegun, the head of Atlantic Records, came down to Miami, heard the song, and said no way. He said they needed to be more adult, and he changed it to “Nights on Broadway.” That was a small masterstroke (it gave the song its hint of sin), but it was only at the end of the session, when they were fooling around, that Barry added the sunburst falsetto echo of the chorus. That one improvised moment transformed their sound. Their signature would now be a falsetto so high, so gospel pure, so Bee Gees that it poked through the clouds. (Justin Timberlake compares their voices to trumpets.)
Tapped by Stigwood to write a handful of songs for the disco movie he was producing (people thought Stigwood was insane for hiring John Travolta, then known for playing Vinnie Barbarino, as the lead), they went to stay at the same “honky chateau” where Elton John had recorded the album of that name and found it to be a chilly dump. But they hunkered down.
We hear a tape of them composing “How Deep Is Your Love,” working with the keyboard wizard Blue Weaver, who helped to noodle the song toward its gorgeous modalities. And the movie offers a thrilling deconstruction of how “Stayin’ Alive” was created. The Bee Gees’ drummer, Dennis Bryon, had to leave the sessions to attend to his mother, who’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. So the producer, Albhy Galuten, took a drum phrase out of “Night Fever,” slowed it down, and turned it into a loop. That slightly slowed-down drum loop — a technique George Martin used to hypnotic effect on many Beatles tracks — gave the song its one-of-a-kind infectious gravity. They built it up from there, piece by piece: the bass, the distinctive guitar hook, and the vocals that, when the movie finally came out, seemed to be speaking from behind Travolta’s strutting macho façade.
“How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” captures just how big “Saturday Night Fever” made the Bee Gees, and how that success fulfilled and intimidated them. It meant that they had nowhere to go but down — and with their roller-coaster karma, you’d better believe that was in the cards. The movie, however, cuts one serious corner on how and why that happened. It leaves out any mention of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (1978), the Stigwood-produced Hollywood musical debacle that starred the Bee Gees and seriously tarnished their image. Given how honest the documentary is about their previous failings, the omission is a bit odd.
Yet the film captures, with more depth than I’ve ever seen, the anti-disco fervor that rose up in the shadow of disco’s popularity, culminating in the infamous “Disco Demolition Night” on July 12, 1979, at Comiskey Park in Chicago. The DJ Steve Dahl arranged for any patron to be let in for just 98 cents if they brought a disco record to be added to the pile and blown up. But the producer and house-music innovator Vince Lawrence, who was on hand as a young stadium usher, makes the point that many of the records people brought weren’t disco records; they were just R&B records. He’s right when he calls it “a book-burning,” and one can hear a reverberation of it in the inflammatory culture war of today.
We’re shown a clip of the Bee Gees on a talk show desperately trying to distance themselves from the “disco” brand, and that’s a bit sad, since they should have defended it. Then again, the pressure they were under was tremendous. They got bomb threats and were blackballed by the radio industry. This led, ironically, to one of their most creative chapters, which is that they made themselves over into behind-the-scenes composer-producers, creating timeless songs for artists like Barbra Streisand (“Woman in Love”), Dionne Warwick (“Heartbreaker”), and Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers (“Islands in the Stream”), all suffused with the echoey lushness of the Bee Gees’ sound. Considering that they’d started out in the late ’60s, this was an extraordinary fourth act.
In the film, Barry Gibb speaks movingly about his brothers, and about how much he misses them. (Andy, their younger sibling who became a teen idol, died at 30 after struggling for years with addiction.) He says, at the end, that he would trade the hits for them being here now. The movie captures what truly charming fellows the Bee Gees were (Maurice, so recessive on stage, is quite the flinty raconteur), and it makes you miss them too. But of course we don’t have to miss them, because their music never left. And one of the effects of a movie like this one is to drive you back to some of those tracks, or to discover the ones you didn’t know. I’ll confess that I had only a distant awareness of “Fanny (Be Tender with My Love),” off of “Main Course.” But ever since I saw “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” I can’t stop playing it. It’s a song that does what so many of the greatest Bee Gees songs did. It breaks your heart and mends it the same time.