‘Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart’ Is Tale Of Brotherhood Wrapped In Multi-Platinum Success 

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Much like the disco craze that they rode to the bank, the legacy of pop group the Bee Gees is often debated and misunderstood. To Noel Gallagher of Oasis, they were a ’60s pop group on par with the Beatles. To Coldplay’s Chris Martin they were hit songwriters with a starling ability to adapt to the times. To pioneering house music producer Vince Lawrence, they were part of a culture that was “lifting people up.” The new HBO documentary Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart tries to bring together the different stages of their career by wrapping it around their fraternal bond.

“When you’ve got brothers singing, it’s like an instrument that nobody else can buy,” says Gallagher admiringly. Barry was the oldest of three Gibb brothers that made up the Bee Gees, with twins Robin and Maurice three years behind him. They spent their early years in England before emigrating to Australia in the late ‘50s.  Baby brother Andy would come along later and though never a member of the group, his siblings would help him launch his own successful solo career off their backs.

“I am beginning to recognize the fact that nothing is true,” Barry Gibb tells us at the film’s outset. “It’s all down to perception.” He goes on to tell us he has “fantastic memories” but that “Maurice and Robin would’ve had a different kind of memory.” Despite this foreboding introduction, there is little trash talk, no terrible secrets that marred the band’s glory years or fueled their multi-platinum ambitions. Barry and Robin often clashed, with Maurice the peacekeeper, and fame led to estrangement but the brothers banded together whenever it came to making music.

The Bee Gees had already been playing professionally in Australia for several years when they first heard the Beatles. Their similar sound and massive success inspired a return to England. They would sign with the same management company as the “Fab Four” with their career overseen by ambitious fellow Australian Robert Stigwood. Early hits like “New York Mining Disaster” and “To Love Somebody” sit comfortably alongside other British Invasion artists of the day and continue to garner admiration from ‘60s music obsessives.

Battles over who should take center stage led Robin to quit the group for 18 months in 1969. Their early ‘70s reformation led to their first #1 single in the U.S., “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart,” but their career started to flounder. They were drinking too much, taking too many pills and their only revenue came from performances at nightclubs in the north of England, “Where all the has beens went to play,” according to guitarist Alan Kendall. “By ‘74, we didn’t think there was going to be much of a future,” says Barry. It was time for something new.

On the verge of being dropped, the band relocated to Miami to record 1975’s Main Course. The album would signal their turn to dance music and introduced Barry’s piercing falsetto vocals, which would become their new sonic hallmark. Their new sound went deeper still on 1976’s Children of the World, gaining popularity in New York discos. Though they emerged from the city’s gay, black and latino underground, discos increasingly drew a more mainstream audience which required a non-stop supply of 4/4 grooves in order to dance the night away.



In 1976, the Bee Gees contributed several new songs to a film Stigwood was producing about young Brooklynites finding salvation on the dance floor. The success of the film, 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, and its soundtrack album would make the band superstars and alter pop culture as a whole. Disco had arrived and the Bee Gees were its ambassadors. Not everyone liked it. The backlash included 1979’s “Disco Demolition Night” at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, which Vince Lawrence likens to “a racist, homophobic book burning” where disco records were literally blown to bits. Footage of the event is skillfully intercut with the oblivious Bee Gees playing to a sold out crowd on tour that same year.

As a result of anti-disco sentiment, the Bee Gees would receive bomb threats and claim they were eventually blackballed by radio. Unable to have hits of their own anymore, they turned to songwriting, penning hits for Barbara Streisand, Diana Ross and Dolly Parton, among others. Though they remained successful as artists, tragedy would soon come knocking for the brothers Gibb. Andy died at the age of 30 in 1988, Maurice at 53 in 2003 and Robin passed away in 2012 after battling cancer.

Now 74, Barry is the sole surviving Gibb brother and his melancholy while recalling his lost siblings anchors How Can You Mend A Broken Heart, giving it a gravity often lacking in music documentaries. His once leonine perm now grey and thin up top, he looks back at the Bee Gees’ career like a dethroned king surveying the ruins of his castle. “I can’t honestly come to terms with the fact that they’re not here anymore,” he says in the film’s final moments. “I’d rather have them all back here and no hits at all.”

Benjamin H. Smith is a New York based writer, producer and musician. Follow him on Twitter:@BHSmithNYC.

Watch The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart on HBO Max

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