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'The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart' is the Deep Dive Into Their Career They've Long Deserved
December 12, 2020  | By David Hinckley

It's not clear why a new documentary on the Bee Gees is titled How Can You Mend a Broken Heart since it's generally a pretty positive retrospective on one of the most enduring careers in modern popular music.

How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, the documentary, premieres at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on HBO, and it's a feast for fans, with a generous buffet of vintage clips that showcase the group's melodic music and lovely harmonies.

It does detail, however, some of the rocky passages, including several breakups and the surreal period when they were simultaneously one of the best-selling groups in the world and one of the most vilified because of their association with disco music from the film Saturday Night Fever.

But overall, and rightly so, Frank Marshall's documentary chronicles a procession of triumphs, from the group's earliest harmony pop of the '60s through their more rhythmic, danceable era of the '70s into their later success as songwriters for the likes of Barbra Streisand and Celine Dion.

The sad part is that only one of the three, Barry Gibb, remains alive to talk about it. Maurice died in 2003 and Robin in 2012, joining their younger brother Andy in too-early demise.

Barry, who is now mostly retired and living in Miami, says at the very end of the two-hour film that if he had the choice of having his brothers still alive or having had "no hits," he'd take his brothers.

Still, he has mostly good memories of both. The periods of estrangement from his brothers, he says, were the regrettable things that close kin sometimes do to each other.

Counterbalancing those darker times and troubles, like Maurice's drug addiction, Barry Gibb remembers that the Bee Gees, unlike many other groups, worked collaboratively. It wasn't one brother having the ideas and giving orders to the others.

In the widest sweep, Barry says, he and his brothers accomplished the amazing feat of getting exactly what they had dreamed about when they were pre-teens in Australia and then later in Britain. They wanted to be pop music stars, and after the Beatles arrived in 1964, they swung onto the British Invasion train and soon became exactly that.

They were Beatles-esque without being imitators, thanks to songs that covered a remarkable range from the mini-drama "New York Mining Disaster 1941" to broken-hearted love songs like "I Started A Joke" and the strange, enchanting "Massachusetts."

There's a great vignette here about their manager Robert Stigwood taking them to New York's Apollo Theater to see Otis Redding and asking them to write a song for him.

They wrote the soaring, soul-influenced "To Love Somebody" – and ended up recording it themselves after Redding was killed in a plane crash.

How Can You Mend a Broken Heart doesn't go into details on the group's first breakup, at the end of the '60s. It goes into considerable detail about their disco crisis and how Saturday Night Fever made them international stars at the same time it almost killed their career by stuffing them into the disco box.

When disco became a dirty word on radio, the Bee Gees found they couldn't get airplay even if they had recorded a Beethoven symphony because of their association with the term.

All three, including Maurice and Robin through extensive vintage interviews, declare for the 10,000th time that they were not and never were disco artists.

But the only way they could stay alive in the music business once they got that label, they realized, was to write songs for other artists. They soon became almost as successful in that endeavor as they had been with their own career, and Barry Gibb, looking back, says he suspects the Bee Gees' legacy will be more as songwriters than performers.

That's an interesting take, and the Bee Gees' legacy is touched upon by the numerous artists interviewed for this documentary, including their producers, band members, and admirers like Eric Clapton and Noel Gallagher.

Gallagher says the Bee Gees should be discussed in the same sentence with the Beatles and Bob Dylan, which may be a bit of an overstatement. For better or worse, Marshall doesn't offer a specific legacy discussion, letting the group's story and music speak and sing for itself.

In any event, this documentary is less about broken hearts than hit records – and in that sense, it could just as easily have appropriated a shorter Bee Gees song title, Words.

Whatever it's called, How Can You Mend a Broken Heart is not an expose. It's a tribute, and the Bee Gees put in the work, learned the lessons, and earned the respect that Frank Marshall shows them.

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