Tuesday 15 December 2020

Spirits having flown: "The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart"

Frank Marshall's Bee Gees doc How Can You Mend A Broken Heart comes in on or about a par with Ron Howard's Beatles doc Eight Days a Week: it's been thoroughly authorised, which gets it access to the one surviving Gee (Barry) and a beguiling array of Gibb archive, but also limits the filmmaker from probing as he perhaps might. How deep is its love? Fathomless. How deep is its content? Fair-to-middling. It remains quite the story, such that it's a miracle we haven't yet had to endure a fictionalised biopic with copious stick-on facefuzz, or some godawful jukebox musical à la the ABBA or Queen ones: the tale of three dorky siblings from the Isle of Man - beardy (Barry), baldy (Maurice), toothy (Robin) - who momentarily succeeded Chic and Donna Summer as disco royalty. (And thereby expanded the form's appeal, drawing in and pacifying those heterosexual white folks who might otherwise be gathered in baseball stadia blowing up Sylvester records.) As that title acknowledges, however, the trio were as much sentimentalists as they were strutting urban sex gods, as much light entertainment as night fever: a early clip of Robin trilling "I Started A Joke" is enough to prove that. That versatility would be their making, both behind-the-scenes - where they wrote for Dolly Parton, Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand - and on record, where three distinct vocal ranges could be heard combining in often blissful harmony. Sometimes they went low; sometimes they went "Stayin' Alive" high. The musician-turned-academic Mykaell Riley here dubs them "the chameleons of pop", which sticks: one of those rare acts to be all things to all people, they attracted admirers and fans at different stages of what proved a four-decade career as a trio. As a young purist/snob in the Eighties, I rather resented these and other Seventies holdovers as their comeback recordings scaled the charts, but I was finally won round to "You Win Again" some thirty years later, after the pop historian Bob Stanley described it in his magnum opus Yeah Yeah Yeah as "a Christmas carol composed in a shipyard".

As retrospectives go, How Can You Mend A Broken Heart is a bit of a whizz-through, offering little along the way to dispel the idea - nurtured in a strain of British TV comedy (Clive Anderson, the Lucas-Walliams Rock Profiles) - that the Gibbs have always been slightly touchy around personal matters: family business, best resolved inhouse. These Bee Gees cut their first album five minutes in, which precludes any real discussion of their background; it's down to celebrity contributors Noel Gallagher and Nick Jonas to offer (unexpectedly lucid) commentary on the fraternal dynamics in play. The throughline is the work, and how the group came to reinvent themselves during rocky transitional phases: turning to a more American sound to get away from the ballads that fell out of favour as the Sixties counterculture came to be replaced by post-Watergate cynicism, then bringing those ballads back when pop got sappier (or more sincere) in the immediate wake of Live Aid. What Marshall's account suggests is that they were above all else savvy, which is something we tend to value more in our electricians and bank managers than we do in our rockstars. Rather than flying too close to the sun or plunging headlong towards the abyss, the brothers were always looking for ways to adapt and sustain themselves in the face of audience indifference or Bee Gee fatigue. (Marshall, who's signed his name to ten times as many films as a producer than as a director, is keen to link their achievements to the production whizzes - Ahmet Ertegun, Arif Mardin - brought in to assist in the group's evolution.) 

Don't come expecting excess or extremes, in other words. Maurice's drinking - a possible consequence of having to play go-between whenever Barry and Robin were at loggerheads - is but an undercurrent in a stray Lulu aside before it's acknowledged in the closing credits; only the presence among the interviewees of a newly sober Eric Clapton - another Robert Stigwood signing - points to the very public ways in which a musician can go off-rails. Like the guitar track on "Jive Talkin'", arrived at after Barry heard the noise his car's tyres were making on a Miami freeway, the movie skitters onward, while remaining steadily middle-of-the-road. It threatens to get a little more explosive as we exit the Seventies, Marshall intercutting the light and joy of a Bee Gees stadium gig with footage of Steve Dahl's notorious Disco Demolition Night; finally, pop culture sees Dahl not as some chortling, Moyles-esque maverick, but as a petty tyrant, and his event for the latter-day bookburning it was. Yet if the Bee Gees weren't reactionaries, they were hardly revolutionaries, either - too cautious to attempt what the Beatles, with whom they briefly crossed paths in the 1960s, were working towards in their final years together. Marshall has a clip of a visibly beleaguered Barry insisting as much around this time: "We're not a political force, we're a pop group." A good one, mind: three grafters with a keenly felt sense of craft, which is why their best songs from the Sixties and Seventies were every bit as energising when Barry, last Bee Gee standing, reprised them in the legends slot at Glastonbury 2017. As a film, it's rarely more than slickly professional entertainment with some nice harmonies - very Bee Gees, in its own way - but endure the last-reel footage of Ed Sheeran covering "Massachusetts", and your reward is just a glimpse of a revelation: Barry, now grey-haired and solitary, opening up for what feels like the first time about what he had, and what he's lost. Is this the curse of the British working-class male of a certain age, that you spend a lifetime channelling your emotions into your work, and can't say what you really feel until it's too late? As he once put it: how can you mend a broken heart?

The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart is now available to rent via Prime Video.

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