“A joy to watch… [a] documentary not so much concerned with hard historical facts as it is with the brothers as they experienced each other, themselves, and their fame.”
How Can You Mend A Broken Heart begins with the quintessential. A pared down, echoey version of “Stayin’ Alive”—probably the Bee Gees song to end all Bee Gees songs—opens the documentary, the familiar twanging bass guitar and falsetto tones easily luring us in. Then it lets the Brothers Gibb themselves ask its central question: how can you mend a broken heart?
The answer, it would seem, is in the remembering. As the last remaining member of the group, Barry Gibb guides the journey down memory lane, aided by archival interviews with his brothers. Their natural musical talents are frequently showcased, but the documentary ponders more on the wonders—and failures—of their emotional harmony: the brothers, at their best, were of one mind; but at their worst, they were greedy, petty, self and mutually destructive. It feels like a reckoning as the film runs through those difficult years—it’s clear when the brothers feel they could have done better. But in the good times there is clarity, and in clarity, comes the music. It is a real joy to watch the brothers and their band members in their craft, to watch the genesis of lyrics and melodies that would eventually define a decade, a movement. You get the sense that Barry, especially, rekindles a lost joy in remembering his brothers and the music they made together. “My immediate family is gone, but that’s life,” he says at the beginning of the film, “It’s the same thing in every family, that someone will be left in the end. [At] this time in life, I have fantastic memories, but everybody’s memories are different. So they’re just my memories, you know?” In this way, the documentary is not so much concerned with hard historical facts as it is with the brothers as they experienced each other, themselves, and their fame.
Where the documentary falters, however, is in the task of deciding just where to place the Bee Gees in the context of the disco movement. At multiple points, both music industry members and experts and the brothers themselves acknowledge the black, gay roots of the Bee Gees signature sounds: the falsetto pitch, the R&B pulses, the emphasis on dancing and movement. It even address the implicitly racist, homophobic nature of the backlash against disco, though it doesn’t go much deeper. But How Can You Mend A Broken Heart fails to really interrogate the implications of three straight, white men becoming the faces of (and profiting from) a fundamentally black and gay musical phenomenon. In fact, what it doesn’t say about the life and death of disco is enough to make a completely new documentary. So perhaps anything beyond this rudimentary—but nonetheless frank—acknowledgement is asking too much of the film, which firmly asserts that disco, though pivotal in catapulting the Bee Gees to superstardom, was simply one period in a long career of music-making. And again, the film states quite frankly in its opening that it doesn’t necessarily aim to put the Bee Gees in any context so much as it aims to let them explain themselves. But the inspiring work of black artists such as Otis Redding, The Delfonics, and The Mills Brothers is brought up at so frequent an interval that you can’t help but wonder if The Bee Gees know just how much of their careers they owe to black artists.
The documentary works hard to highlight the range of the Bee Gees discography and to establish their work as art, as opposed to the empty, corporatized disco that followed their hit (and frankly, genius) soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever (1977), but it works harder to explain the group as a literal band of brothers. Here are three people, it says, who could not have succeeded without each other, and who, without the others, are incomplete. It’s mentioned multiple times that, although Barry was older than twins Robin and Maurice, they often thought of themselves as triplets, and the documentary makes it clear that that kind of bone-deep closeness was the key to everything for the Gibbs. It’s a bittersweet truth to realize, especially in light of Maurice’s death in 2003 and Robin’s in 2012, but it best explains why the Bee Gees endure to this day: they took that togetherness and made it into something we could all enjoy and take part in, and the documentary, in allowing Barry Gibb re-access those lost parts of himself and try the process of mending his broken heart, does the same.
Director: Frank Marshall
Producers: Nigel Sinclair, Jeanne Elfant Festa, Mark Monroe, Frank Marshall
Cast: Barry Gibb, Maurice Gibb, Robin Gibb
Release Date: December 12, 2020
Available on: HBOMax