“The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” pays tribute to the Gibb brothers with a tour of their pop music reign. Grooving through the decades, this entertaining documentary aspires to prove that the Bee Gees were more than a hitmaker for disco nightclubs. Rather, Barry, Maurice and Robin were master songwriters and chameleons, continually reinventing themselves to harmonize with the times.
Working largely off archival footage intercut with interviews — both original and vintage — of the brothers and their collaborators, the director Frank Marshall graphs the band’s ups and downs onto a chronology of ’60s, ’70s and ’80s popular music. At first the Bee Gees, forming at a young age, echoed early Beatles albums. As their warbling harmonies evolved, the brothers’ star rose.
In addition to laying out the personality of each member, the film offers a satisfying look at the process of making and marketing music. Barry recalls that he found his trademark falsetto, later flaunted on disco hits like “Stayin’ Alive,” after a producer urged him to let loose while recording “Nights on Broadway.” Barry also confesses that the song was originally “Lights on Broadway”; an executive suggested they change the lyric to make the band seem more adult.
Once it reaches the disco era, the documentary hits a bump. Interviews with the DJ Nicky Siano and the dance music producer Vince Lawrence detail how disco was born in Black and gay spaces before the music was commercialized and eventually axed in a backlash inflamed by racism and homophobia. The movie implies that the Bee Gees, evermore linked to the genre after “Saturday Night Fever,” got swept up in the chaos. Crucially, Marshall fails to probe where the Bee Gees fit into a history of whitewashing and profiting from Black music. For several pesky beats, the film slips into hagiography — like an awkward bridge in a song that, otherwise, makes you want to hit the dance floor.
The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes. Watch on HBO Max beginning Dec. 12.
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