More than 60 years after the Bee Gees’ formation, for Barry Gibb, all that matters now are the songs. “The only thing I care about is that people remember the music,” he says. “I really don’t care if anyone remembers me or the group. I just want the music to live. I want people to hear that music in 20 years or 30 years that was made more than 40 years ago.”
In the new documentary, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, out Dec. 12 on HBO and HBO Max, the music lives gloriously on. The film, directed and produced by Oscar nominee Frank Marshall, explores the trio’s tremendous musical legacy, but also looks at the personal dynamics that forever bonded the brothers, even though at times it ripped them apart.
During the mid-to-late 1970s, the music of The Bee Gees — older brother Barry and twins Robin and Maurice — was inescapable. Between such hits as “Jive Talkin’,” “Fanny (Be Tender With My Love),” “You Should Be Dancing,” “Staying Alive,” “Night Fever,” and “Tragedy,” they dominated the pop airwaves. The prolific group scored nine No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, a mark that still stands as the third-highest for any group, bested only by the Beatles and the Supremes.
The film traces the Bee Gees from their start in Australia in the 1950s as young lads managed by their father, to their 1967 move to London and subsequent breakthrough in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Following substance abuse issues, infighting that led to a brief breakup, and a career dip, they resurged again in the mid-‘70s — hitting peak prominence in 1977 with the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever, which has sold more than 16 million copies in the U.S. (according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America), and won the Grammy for album of the year.
In the ’80s, the group fell victim of the disco backlash, and their pop success as a recording trio largely dried up. But the three brothers reinvented themselves once again, as songwriters and producers for other artists (including on Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s “Islands in the Stream” and Barbra Streisand’s “Guilty”), before returning to the charts as artists. They continued to score top 10 singles through 1989, with that year’s “One” marking their final trip to the Hot 100’s top tier.
For all their success, the Bee Gees felt the pitfalls of fame, which led to wild indulgences; in the film, Maurice boasts of having six Rolls Royces by the time he was 21. There was also conflict between the three, especially between Barry and Robin, who died in 2012, over who would sing lead vocals — leaving Maurice, who died in 2003, to play the intermediary.
“We became famous, and that became a real powerful element in our lives,” Gibb, 74, tells Billboard. “It became a competition. The sibling rivalry and all those things. Because success creates that and you’re not the same anymore.”
For Marshall, who produced such films as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Seabiscuit, the Bee Gees story was as compelling as any fictional drama. In addition to the brothers’ 50 years of music making, Marshall was also drawn to “how they were able to reinvent themselves over five decades and the ups and downs,” he says. “You’re always going to have complicated relationships with your brothers, they survived them. They transformed themselves through the adversity. I also realized what an amazing story this was of family, love of family, longevity and adaptation.”
The project came together with relative ease. In late 2016, Marshall visited his friend, Capitol Music Group chairman and CEO Steve Barnett, at Capitol Records Tower in Hollywood to tour the revamped recording studios where Marshall’s composer father was under contract during the 1950s and 1960s. Barnett mentioned that the company was moving into documentary production and that the Bee Gees had recently signed a worldwide agreement with Capitol that covered their expansive recording catalog. (Sister company Universal Music Publishing Group also handled the Bee Gees song copyrights).
“I said, ‘How about them?’” Marshall says. Gibb was coming to Los Angeles shortly for a 2017 Grammy tribute to the brothers, including younger brother Andy, who died in 1988. “We really connected,” Marshall says, of Barry. “We’re both the oldest in our musical families. I have two brothers. It was a smooth and easy connection.” Marshall and his brothers even formed their own band “for about 10 minutes,” he jokes, under the name the Mersh Brothers.
The film is filled with a treasure trove of trivia — such as the revelation that the Bee Gees originally wrote “To Love Somebody” for Otis Redding, who died before he could record it — as well as archival footage and memorabilia, including the letter the Bee Gees’ father, Hugh, wrote to the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, asking him to handle his sons’ career.
Epstein handed the band over to Robert Stigwood, who guided their career for years, steering them to stardom. Stigwood also introduced them to another management client, Cream, then fronted by Eric Clapton. It was Clapton who, years later, suggested that the commercially slumping Bee Gees leave London to go record in Miami, where Clapton had recorded his now-classic 1974 album, 461 Ocean Boulevard.
“Eric said, ‘Why don’t you make an album in America?’” Gibb recalls. He said, ‘Get Americanized. Don’t spend your life tying to stick with psychedelic music or whatever you think is happening in England. Get to America, get influenced by American artists.’ And we did just that.”
Relocating to Miami (where the brothers, their families and parents all eventually moved) proved just the inspiration they needed. Through RSO’s distribution deal with Atlantic, the band paired with the latter label’s producer Arif Mardin for 1975’s Main Course — an album that not only resurrected their career, with such hits as “Jive Talkin’,” “Nights on Broadway” and “Fanny (Be Tender With My Love),” but also put Barry’s falsetto front and center. It would shortly become the group’s signature sound.
The shift to synth-driven grooves from some of the trio’s earlier folk-based ballads sent them soaring up the charts on both sides of the pond, but proved to be another wedge in the band. “[Atlantic Records head] Ahmet Ertegun told Robert Stigwood that if we didn’t kick it up, they’d have to drop the group because they were fed up with the pathos in the ballads,” Gibb says. “Robin really didn’t want to do much after that. I think it really broke his heart, because Ahmet didn’t want to hear that lament anymore, that kind of voice. It’s a cruel business. You’re always dealing with people who want to tell you what kind of songs you should record.”
Of course, the band found out how fickle the business could be again after the staggering success of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which included five new Bee Gees-penned songs. Helmed by Chicago DJ Steve Dahl, protests against disco music — which the Bee Gees represented for so many, despite their myriad musical styles — made the group a lightning rod. The hatred of the genre and its purveyors became so intense that “the FBI even came to our house and said, ‘There’s been a threat on your life and we wanted you to be aware of it,’” Gibb recalls.
Over time, however, love for the Bee Gees and their music has returned and only grown, as Gibb saw when he did a limited sold out tour in North America in 2014 — as well as when he played before more than 100,000 at the 2017 Glastonbury Festival in the U.K., in the festival’s coveted Sunday “legends slot.”
That affection extends to the artists interviewed for the documentary — which, in addition to Clapton, includesJustin Timberlake, Coldplay’s Chris Martin and Mark Ronson, as well as the Jonas Bros.’ Nick Jonas and Oasis’ Noel Gallagher, both of whom address the complications of being in a sibling band. “I put together my wish list of people I wanted to talk to and everybody we asked said yes,” Marshall says. “Usually you get 25% of the people you want to talk to, they were all so influenced by the Bee Gees, they wanted to talk abut them.”
The film poignantly deals with Andy, Maurice and Robin’s deaths, a topic still extraordinarily painful for Gibb to talk about. “I know it’s a sensitive subject, but he was also really reflective and he really misses his brothers, you can tell,” Marshall says.
Gibb, who still lives in Miami (with another home outside of London), continues making music. Greenfields (out Jan. 8) features country artists, including Dolly Parton, Keith Urban and Little Big Town, duetting with Gibb on some of the Bee Gees’ biggest hits. He’s extremely pleased with the new interpretations of the classics, but admits he misses the way the record business used to work.
“We had the best promo team. If you would go to a major station every week, then your record would go up the chart. And I miss all that. I miss going into No. 80 and then seeing it go to No. 70 with a bullet,” he says. “Nowadays, an artist will just drop a song. Once the record industry changed the way it worked, you can’t go to the record store. That was a real joy to me — I used browse for hours. Now everything’s on the Internet and is downloaded and streaming. It’s not the business we came into. But, you know, at this age, I’m happy that any of it ever took place.”
In addition to Marshall, the doc’s producers are Nigel Sinclair and Jeanne Elfant Festa. The film is a Polygram Entertainment presentation of a Kennedy/Marshall and White Horse Pictures production in association with Diamond Docs.