Bee Gees Documentary Traces The Gibb Brothers' Pathway To Stardom

Jan 14, 2021
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new HBO documentary "The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart" follows the group's career arc, how they became stars in the '60s in the wake of the Beatles and remained popular into the 21st century. Of the three Bee Gee brothers - Barry, Robin and Maurice - only Barry is still alive. And he's just put out an album called "Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers' Songbook (Vol. 1)". It's a collection of duets with an array of country music artists. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of the film and the album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW YORK MINING DISASTER 1941")

BEE GEES: (Singing) In the event of something happening to me, there is something I would like you all to see. It's just a photograph of someone that's I knew. Have you seen my wife, Mr. Jones? Do you know what it's like on the outside? Don't go talking too loud. You'll cause a landslide, Mr. Jones.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb, born in Britain and raised in Australia, discovered that the sibling harmony they were able to create was a pathway to stardom in the era of Beatlemania.

The brothers remade themselves in the '70s as spectacularly popular creators of a distinctive kind of disco music and continued to write pop hits for themselves and other artists. Maurice died in 2003, Robin in 2012. The remaining Bee Gee, Barry, has just released "Greenfields," recorded in Nashville. It's an album of duets. Here he is singing the Bee Gees hit "Too Much Heaven" with Alison Krauss.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOO MUCH HEAVEN")

BARRY GIBB AND ALISON KRAUSS: (Singing) Nobody gets too much heaven no more. It's much harder to come by. I'm waiting in line. Nobody gets too much love anymore. It's as high as a mountain and harder to climb.

BARRY GIBB: (Singing) Oh, you and me, girl, got a lot of love in store. And it flow through you. And it flows through me. And I love you so much more.

ALISON KRAUSS: (Singing) Then my life...

TUCKER: When you watch the new HBO Max documentary called "The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?" you're struck by just how many hits the Bee Gees had. In America, it started in 1967 with the song "New York Mining Disaster 1941" and continued on through ballads like "I Started A Joke," "Lonely Days" and "How Deep Is Your Love."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW DEEP IS YOUR LOVE")

BEE GEES: (Singing) I know your eyes in the morning sun. I feel you touch me in the pouring rain. And the moment that you wander far from me, I want to feel you in my arms again. And you come to me on a summer breeze. Keep me warm in your love, then you softly leave. And it's me you need to show. How deep is your love?

TUCKER: With a body of work as vast and gorgeous as that which the Bee Gees created, why, I wondered, did they never quite attain the pop cultural status of contemporaries like the Fab Four and the Stones? The answer becomes clear as the two-hour documentary proceeds. I realized that the Bee Gees simply weren't as individuals interesting thinkers or commentators about their own work or about the times in which they lived. Cultural clout is handy, and they had some when their songs for "Saturday Night Fever" in 1977 rendered them momentarily the kings of white disco. But the Bee Gees were always very modest. And anyway, it turned out that cultural influence is ultimately unnecessary when you can create an utterly unique piece of delirious dance pop such as 1979's "Tragedy."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRAGEDY")

BEE GEES: (Singing) Here I lie in a lost and lonely part of town. Held in time, in a world of tears I slowly drown. Going home, I just can't make it all alone. I really should be holding you, holding you, loving you, loving you. Tragedy. When the feeling's gone and you can't go on. It's tragedy.

TUCKER: Barry Gibb, at age 74, can't sustain that sort of extraordinary falsetto crooning anymore, and so it makes sense that he'd go to Nashville, where artists can age gracefully to perform duets with acts as various as Jason Isbell, Miranda Lambert and Dolly Parton. I find Gibb's duet with Parton on the Bee Gees song "Words" the most effective and moving. Dolly, no spring chicken herself, guides Barry very shrewdly into finding a way to make the increasing fragility of their aging vocal chords sound beautifully vulnerable.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORDS")

BARRY GIBB AND DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) Talk in everlasting words and dedicate them all to me. And I will give you all my life. I'm here if you should call to me. You think that I don't even mean a single word I say. It's only words, and words are all I have.

TUCKER: "Greenfields," produced by Nashville ace Dave Cobb is being positioned as Barry Gibb's move toward country, but it avoids the tantalizing prospect of hearing Barry go hardcore country in favor of the familiar sounds of, as the album's subtitle has it, the "Gibb Brothers' Songbook." As such, it serves primarily to remind you how deep is our love for the idiosyncratic classics that the Bee Gees created.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed the new documentary "The Bee Gees: How Can You Manage A Broken Heart" and the new album "Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers' Songbook." If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with humorist Fran Lebowitz and Adam Jentleson, author of a new book about how the Senate became so partisan and how the filibuster became an obstructionist tool, Check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

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