VOD film review: The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart
Ivan Radford | On 27, Nov 2021
Director: Frank Marshall
Cast: Barry Gibb, Maurice Gibb, Robin Gibb, Mark Ronson, Eric Clapton, Nick Jonas, Chris Martin, Noel Gallagher
Where to watch The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart online in the UK: Sky Documentaries / NOW
How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, taken from the Bee Gees’ first US No 1 single (released in 1971), is a title that promises disharmony, disagreements and deep regret. HBO’s documentary is a surprisingly frank chronicle of the group’s remarkable career and legacy – although Barry Gibb’s official endorsement and involvement in the film does limit the extent of that candid drama.
For anyone who just thinks of the Bee Gees’ contribution to pop music history as being Stayin’ Alive, this sweeping overview of their output is a gob-smacking reminder of their versatility as well as we their influence. We follow the trio from their early days as ambitious musicians, when they formed a skiffle band aged under 10. After a stint in Australia several years down the line, their returned to the UK and found success with New York Mining Disaster 1941, with songs such as To Love Somebody and Massachusetts finding success in a post-Beatles groove.
But it was later in the 1970s that they found their rhythm, as they wound up working on a “little disco movie”, Saturday Night Fever, which catapulted them into stardom. They were key to disco becoming a mainstream genre of music, and the film highlights the Gibbs’ respect and appreciation of the debt they owed to Black and gay musicians, with Stayin’ Alive for them a song of solidarity with anyone experiencing discrimination. This is strikingly contrasted with the horrifying scenes of protests at a hate rally in 1979, when disco were declared “dead” and vinyls were burnt in a Chicago park.
The Bee Gees ended up receiving death threats and were blacklisted by radio, but director Frank Marshall highlights just how flexible and adaptable the trio were, managing to grow and shift their style and tone to remain relevant and popular for more than five decades – spanning 1,000 songs and 20 No 1 hits, not always as performers but also as songwriters for other artists. As a result, this feels as much an overview of the whole of pop music as one group’s career.
But that’s balanced with a focus on the interpersonal tensions and dynamics that were crucial to the group’s chameleonic success and appeal. Barry is the last Bee Gee standing, after the passing of Maurice, Robin and Andy, but there’s a hefty volume of archive footage that’s assembled to give us a sense of each brother and how they all fitted together. Inevitably, that wasn’t always smoothly, and the fractious divides stem from Robin and Barry’s clashing egos (they alternated on lead vocals) as much as Maurice’s efforts to keep the peace. Noel Gallagher and Nick Jonas are just some of the impressive vox pops to hand to offer an insight into the stresses of working with one’s family in the music industry.
If there’s a slight restraint when it comes to this, Barry reflects on the ups and downs with a gentle melancholy that’s quietly moving. And it’s balanced out with a dive into the kind of musical craft that can often be overlooked by most music documentaries. Justin Timberlake highlights their harmonies (“like a horn section”), while we also hear of how producer Arif Marden helped Barry to develop his distinctive falsetto while working on 1975’s Nights on Broadway. The way that many songs were written in the recording studio emphasises just how precise and involved the brothers were in their songwriting process – while How Can You Mend a Broken Heart may not give us a blow-by-blow account of fixing emotional relationships, there’s a technical depth on offer that’s just as involving.
The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart is available on Sky Documentaries. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, for £9.99 a month with no contract. For the latest Sky TV packages and prices, click the button below.