No pop group had a decade to compare with what the Bee Gees went through between 1967 and 1977. As the band explains in this excellent documentary from Frank Marshall (whose odd career has taken in Arachnophobia, Congo and Alive), it took them five months to go from obscurity in Australia to careering about swinging London with The Beatles.
By the early 1970s the Gibb brothers were reduced to playing northern clubs to cover tax bills. They could have resigned themselves to going the way of Freddie and the Dreamers, but their extraordinary disco reinvention led to ubiquity and one of the best-selling albums in history. They managed all this without ever becoming exactly fashionable.
Marshall breaks no new ground in his structure. An interesting variety of celebrities is on hand to mine different schools of expertise. Noel Gallagher knows a thing or two about families in bands. "When you've got brothers singing together, that's an instrument nobody else can buy," the Mancunian says. Justin Timberlake makes a fascinating point about Barry Gibb's falsetto vocals being used like brass in the classic tracks from Saturday Night Fever. "I'm not high," he snorts to apparently baffled observers offscreen.
A superb late episode – worthy of a film in itself – deals with the borderline racist, more-than-borderline homophobic “disco sucks” movement that culminated with a legion of airheads detonating records in Chicago. “These aren’t disco records,” a black employee of Comiskey Park recalls thinking. “They’re mostly just records by black artists.”
Fleetwood Mac and other bores turn up to ladle scorn on this lesser music. (To be fair, I’m sure the Macs wouldn’t say that now.) The core of the documentary remains, however, the testimony of the Gibb brothers. Maurice, who died in 2003, Robin, who left us in 2012, and Andy, the younger, non-Bee Gee brother who went first in 1988, are all included in archive footage.
Only poor Barry is left to speak from the present day. Always an amiable eccentric, he proves good company as we move from beginnings in Australia to ballads in the Carnaby Street era to the most infectious white dance records of the 1970s.
Barry doesn’t give too much away but, in the closing moments, he tugs the heartstrings with a lament for his unlucky siblings. “I’d rather them all back and no hits at all,” he says. You’d expect nothing else, but it dampens the eye to actually hear the words.
Available on DVD and digital download from December 14th