tv review

HBO’s New Bee Gees Documentary Does More Than Just Disco

It also smartly notes that disco itself was born long before the Bee Gees, Saturday Night Fever, or capitalism caught up to it. Photo: Courtesy of HBO/Shutterstock

The Bee Gees became, and remain, synonymous with the mainstream popularity of disco. In late 1977 and ’78, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack was such a culturally dominating force, one fueled by multiple hits written and recorded by the trio of Gibb brothers, that it has been natural to primarily associate the Bee Gees’ sound with white leisure suits, light-up dance floors, and the image of John Travolta grooving with one hip popped and an index finger pointed toward heaven.

But there is far more depth and breadth to the Bee Gees’ story, their talent, and their influences than the reductive image of them as the kings of disco suggests, as the new HBO documentary, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, airing Saturday night, makes clear. Directed by filmmaker and producer Frank Marshall, the compelling, nearly two-hour movie traces the band’s history from British kids finding musical success in Australia to internationally known pop balladeers to one of the most prodigious architects of dance-floor favorites in the history of music. But the movie is more than a biography or nostalgia strut down “Stayin’ Alive” lane. Marshall, writer Mark Monroe, and story consultant Cassidy Hartmann actively wrestle with the band’s legacy to explore the true origins and subtexts of their sound. This is a rock documentary that doesn’t just recount a band’s rise, breakup, and successful reunion, though it does do that. It invites its audience to see the band’s success from a deeper, more contextualized point of view.

“I am beginning to recognize the fact that nothing is true,” Barry Gibb says in the doc’s opening moments. “It’s all down to perception.”

Speaking in 2019 from his home in Miami, the city where the Bee Gees first figured out how to infuse R&B into their music, the eldest Gibb brother is in his early 70s, his famously lustrous, wavy mane now wispier and whiter. He adds that his memories only partially reflect the Bee Gees’ complete experience. His bandmates, younger twin brothers Robin and Maurice, “would have a different memory,” he says. But, unfortunately, they’re no longer here to tell it; Maurice died in 2003 following complications from surgery and Robin died in 2012 of cancer.

We still hear from the two of them, via archival interviews, but their absence still hangs over the film as much as Gibbs’s introduction to it does. The idea that memory, and therefore history, is based on the biases of those recounting it is central to How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.
Not long after scoring their first string of hits in the late ’60s, the Bee Gees temporarily broke up, largely because of a rift between Barry and Robin, both of whom wanted to sing lead. The fact that Noel Gallagher of Oasis, who knows a thing or two about rifts with brothers, and Nick Jonas add their voices to the film’s conversation about sibling rivalry colliding with art and ego turns what could have registered as a rock-doc cliché — band members have petty fights! — into the recognition of a universal reality about how creative partnerships with blood relatives can bring childhood hurt and jealousy to the surface.

There are some lovely moments that illuminate the mystery and magic of creation. “Songwriters don’t really write songs, you receive songs,” says Chris Martin of Coldplay as imagery of a bridge that the Bee Gees took daily to Criteria Studios in Miami appears and the voice of Barry Gibbs explains how the clickety-clack of car wheels on that bridge inspired the beat of “Jive Talkin’,” the song that marked a deliberate turn in their career toward the funky.

But the depiction of the Bee Gees’ unwitting move into the role of ultimate disco symbols provides the heart and most fascinating part of How Can You Mend a Broken Heart. As Gibbs and the musicians, producers, and engineers who collaborated with them recall, the new songs for the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which also included previously released Bee Gees hits “Jive Talkin’” and “You Should Be Dancing,” were written while the band was recording an album at the Château d’Hérouville in France. It is wild, still, that the birth of songs that would typify the disco era — “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” “How Deep Is Your Love,” “More Than a Woman” — occurred on a rundown estate outside France, far from the Brooklyn disco frequented by Travolta’s Tony Manero and before anyone in the band had even closely read the Saturday Night Fever script.

The documentary also smartly notes that disco itself was born long before the Bee Gees, Saturday Night Fever — itself inspired by a New York Magazine article — or capitalism caught up to it. That beat-driven party music first caught fire in Black and gay communities before going mainstream and getting co-opted by straight cis white men and women and exploited for mass consumption. “It all goes back to one thing, the same thing that’s happening now: greed,” says former Studio 54 DJ Nicky Siano of the post–Saturday Night Fever attempt to capitalize on disco. “Greed is the thing that happens in people that really ruins a whole lot of shit.”

An incisive montage toggles between a sold-out Bee Gees concert at the Oakland Coliseum Arena in July of 1979 and the night during that same month that Chicago DJ Steve Dahl spearheaded the famous Disco Demolition Night where, following a White Sox game at Comiskey Park, people chanted “Disco sucks” while disco records were blown up in the middle of the field. Often characterized as a moment of pushback against an oversaturated phenomenon that, as Alice Cooper says in a clip, allegedly created music “for old people,” How Can You Mend a Broken Heart calls it something else.

“It was a racist, homophobic bookburning,” says house-music pioneer Vince Lawrence, who happened to be working as an usher at Comiskey Park that night and notes that many of the albums people brought were by Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Curtis Mayfield, artists who didn’t even make disco records. “I noticed more than anything, it was mostly just Black records,” he says.

It’s a shame that Barry Gibb doesn’t substantively weigh in on that aspect of the disco blowback or whether he has mixed feelings about making his falsetto vocals the center of the Bee Gees’ music when other, lesser known Black artists had done it first. (He does fully acknowledge their influence and his appreciation of their music.) Even in a documentary that knows all things are about perception, some relevant information inevitably is left out of the picture. While Marshall’s movie does touch on Andy Gibb, the youngest Gibb brother who became a pop idol in his own right and died in 1988 of a heart attack brought on by years of drug abuse, it never notes that there was a sister in the family, Lesley, who didn’t go into show business. Without her in the picture, it’s easy to assume that Barry Gibb is the only living Bee Gees sibling, which isn’t entirely the case.

He is, though, the only Gibb brother still here and that weighs on him heavily. His final insight — “I can’t honestly come to terms with the fact that they’re not here anymore. I’ve never been able to do that. I’d rather have them all back here and no hits at all” — is a sentiment that presumably his brothers would have shared. After a year defined by loss — of people, of stories, of other perceptions — it’s hard to come away from the documentary without Barry’s sendoff striking a nerve.

HBO’s New Bee Gees Doc Does More Than Just Disco