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WHEN HEARTS AND FEVER BREAK: THE STORY OF THE BEE GEES

It’s telling that HBO’s superb new documentary on The Bee Gees is titled How Can You Mend a Broken Heart and not, say, Stayin’ Alive or You Should Be Dancing.

The chosen title establishes the show’s rightful focus on the miraculous songwriting of the Brothers Gibb (“Broken Heart” was a hit for them but also became a perennial for Al Green). Even more powerfully, though, it frames the story, quite properly, in the loss endured by surviving brother Barry Gibb, who has withstood the deaths of siblings Maurice, Robin and Andy. Near the end of this powerful doc, he says he would trade the band’s many hits to have his brothers back.

But if mending a broken heart is an impossible task, as the titular song suggests, we’re also reminded that the music itself comes heroically close to achieving it. In a breathtaking coda, we see Barry performing “Stayin’ Alive” at Glastonbury in 2017, and the explosion of joy in the oceanic festival crowd (remember those?) is gorgeously redemptive.

The film, directed by Frank Marshall, was co-produced by Nigel Sinclair and Jeanne Elfant Festa, who are joined by co-producers Jody Gerson and Steve Barnett. The involvement of Gerson and Barnett ensured a balanced and vibrant representation of the group’s gobsmackingly great catalog—and a bracing immersion in their uncanny creative process. Broken Heart weaves archival footage, interviews and music as skillfully as any “rock doc” we’ve seen, and truly elevates its subject.

Brotherhood is a prevailing theme, whether it fuels the competition and squabbling of the early days or shapes the exquisite complementarity of the harmonies (talking head Noel Gallagher speaks engagingly to both sides of that coin). Ultimately it becomes a source of mature unity.

Viewers who come to the film knowing only the behemoth that is Saturday Night Fever will be blown away by the sparkling material of the ’60s and early ’70s, including “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” “Massachusetts,” the colossal “To Love Somebody,” “I Started a Joke,” “Lonely Days” and “Words” (indeed, they already had a Best Of set in stores by 1969).

We see them addressing the lack of commercial momentum in the ’70s and the creative rebirth that followed their relocation (at the urging of Eric Clapton, who recognizes this as a top achievement of his career) to Miami. With a renewed focus on their R&B influences, they cultivated a ravishing fusion of pop and groove (topped by Barry’s keen falsetto) that would coincide with manager Robert Stigwood’s master plan and become the thermonuclear phenomenon that was Saturday Night Fever. Amazingly, we even get a glimpse of the five-song demo cassette that featured “Stayin’ Alive,” “More Than a Woman,” “How Deep Is Your Love,” “If I Can’t Have You” and “Night Fever.” Bow down, ye songwriters.

Stigwood's own trajectory is a fascinating sidebar. The biz visionary came up under Beatles manager Brian Epstein, piloted the Gibbs through a successful period at Atlantic and ultimately made them the tentpole of his money-minting RSO label; from his fatherly, steadfast oversight of the group to his inspired film deal with John Travolta, he seems driven by a certainty no one else can see.

The mania of fame, the lethal lure of excess, the subsequent backlash (in this case the infamous “Disco Sucks” event, rightly described as a “book burning,” and eerily Trumpian in its curdled, racist overtones)—all these follow in the wake of Fever, and the brothers’ subsequent struggles and reinventions speak to their indomitable resilience and esprit de corps.

It is heartbreaking indeed that his brothers are not around to savor this superb slice of cultural history, but to see Barry remembering it all and absorbing the legacy of joy he helped to construct is almost enough to mend that break.

 

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