Movie review: Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (2020)

\I’ll put the summation at the top: a sure sign of a successful music documentary is that it makes you interested in its subject even if you are not a fan or even if you are not familiar with the artist at all. And, while I am a Bee Gees fan so cannot know this for certain, I am confident that this very good documentary achieves that.

That said, the problem with telling the long and fascinating story of the Bee Gees in two hours is that it’s simply not enough time. It could easily be double that, as a two-part miniseries, and perhaps even longer, especially if the very-much-intertwined Andy Gibb story were to be integrated.

So, by necessity, some parts must be left out or given cursory attention, and I do not envy those behind How Can You Mend a Broken Heart for having to make those decisions. I would have loved more coverage of their youth in Australia, of which you can find some fascinating footage on YouTube. Their personal struggles are downplayed–this film was made in cooperation with the various Gibbs’ families, so you can understand this decision, and, in fairness, the Gibbs rarely made the papers for such things even though Maurice struggled with alcoholism for two decades. Their second, post-disco comeback receives more time than I was afraid it would, but still not enough–the problem here is that it was a quite modest comeback in the US, and even though it was much bigger in Europe, this movie is a US production. 

But what it does include is excellent. Some of my favorite parts, which I think will be the favorite parts of most viewers, were the stories behind recording some of their classic songs–“New York Mining Disaster 1941,” “How Deep is Your Love,” and, especially, “Stayin’ Alive.” These looks at the band’s creative process are fascinating, and in the case of “How Deep is Your Love,” actually touching (and likely not for the reason you think).

Their time in England, 1967-1974, receives a good deal of coverage, for which I was grateful. At least in the US, most people younger than fifty, maybe even fifty-five, know little about this period that produced some of the Bee Gees’ greatest work and some of their biggest failures. I do wish they had spent just a little time clarifying what was on what album–you’d almost think the singles were untethered from larger works. Trafalgar in particular should have gotten more attention.

Of course, their dance music period (they disliked being called “disco”) has been covered extensively elsewhere, but I’ve never seen it covered better than it is here. As this will be the initial draw for a high percentage of viewers, it was important that this section be done right, and it is, smashingly so. A minor disappointment is that they really should have spent one minute on the Mr. Natural album, an artistic success but commercial disaster (it peaked at #178 on the US album chart) that was the stepping stone for their “overnight” comeback a year later with “Jive Talkin'” and Main Course.

The film is bookended by contemporary footage of Barry, and while it could have used more of this, I’m glad for what we got. The grief that haunts him over the loss of his brothers is palpable and heartrending. 

The Bee Gees’ tale of triumph and tragedy is as epic as the best of their music, and, for the most part, How Can You Mend a Broken Heart tells it most admirably. It is a must for fans of the Brothers Gibb, casual and devoted alike, and, if given a chance by non-fans, may well create some new ones. Not quite Too Much Heaven, but close.

Related: Movie review: Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Bee Gees: “Spicks and Specks” (1966)

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