The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart

M, 107 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The song in the title of this doco about one of the biggest pop music groups ever, may not be the one that comes to mind first when thinking about the Bee Gees, but it is certainly apt. For all the amazing successes they had, the Gibb brothers had more than their fair share of heartache.

Another way of looking at it was that How Can You Mend a Broken Heart was a comeback single. It was one of the first tracks from the Bee Gees, brothers Barry, Maurice and Robin, when they got back together again in 1971 after their break up two years earlier. And it was the first to reach No 1 for them in the US.

The Bee Gees were particularly good songwriters. A very talented, versatile and enduring success in pop music but it seems despite all the awards and the accolades they still get a hard time of it in the court of received opinion.

The anti-disco movement that began in the late 1970s was tough on the Bee Gees, and other, mainly Black American performers. Perhaps this doco will help bring a re-assessment of the Bee Gees and the many fabulous songs they wrote, for themselves and many other performers.

An interview with the last remaining Bee Gee at home in Miami bookends the story. Even Barry Gibb, the tall, good-looking one with even teeth and a mane of brown hair, has come to look his age. He is of course the only one of the four brothers still with us.

But what a journey it was. Right at the start, footage from a concert in Oakland, California in 1979 is a reminder of how big they were. ‘Classic sixties pop’, someone observes. They may have started surfing the same wave as the Beatles et al, but they outlasted the fab four, with hits in every decade since to the 1960s when they began.

In Oakland they were riding high on the massive success of their soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever which earned them, for better and worse, the enduring moniker Kings of Disco. Prep for a ‘disco demolition’ night that would go some way towards trashing the Bee Gees’ reputation was well underway in Chicago, spearheaded by a local radio DJ.

Barry, Robin and Maurice had certainly come a long way since calling Australia home. After the Gibb family migrated here from Britain in 1958, they were only here a short while.

Were they part of a Pommie diaspora of pop celebs who stayed and made their name here? No, in less than a decade, the Gibbs were back in the UK, though not before they had had laid down a local hit single, Spicks and Specks.

Doco director Frank Marshall, who does a decent job, is known mostly as a producer has directed a few high-impact titles like Arachnophobia and Congo but he did have a great team of key creatives assisting. Documentary writer Mark Monroe (Chasing Ice, and The Cove among the many titles in his filmography) and editors Derek Boonstra, in particular.

The film is the usual meld of archival images and interview material, a little rigidly matching image to narration until the clips lengthen, the rhythm relaxes and the film hits its stride.

We hear assessments of the Bee Gees’ contribution to music from the likes of Eric Clapton, Justin Timberlake and Coldplay frontman Chris Martin.

the revelations are mostly about the bond between the men themselves

We also hear a bit from the brothers’ partners. But the doco’s personal revelations are mostly about the bond between the men themselves, including the bond with much younger Andy who developed his own career. Brotherhood brought the usual fraternal rivalries but it also brought the gift of compatible voices and a natural synchronicity.

It is said by interviewees on more than one occasion that had the Bee Gees not been brothers they would never have stuck together.

The pop idols’ struggle with fame, the substance abuse, the internecine squabbles, and the strain of wanting independent recognition, all have a familiar ring. As does the usual excess, like one of them, Maurice perhaps, owning six Rolls Royces before the age of 21.

The Bee Gees’ flamboyance is superficial and easy to shoot down. The catalogue of great songs is another matter entirely.

First published in the Canberra Times on 6 December 2020

Featured image: Robin, Barry and Maurice Gibb in their heyday