The story behind the new Bee Gees documentary: “Saturday Night Fever changed their lives forever”

In his sweeping new documentary, How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, renowned director and producer Frank Marshall tells the extraordinary life story of the Bee Gees: how three brothers from Manchester went on to sell over 220 million records worldwide and wrote one of the greatest movie soundtracks of all time with Saturday Night Fever.

Charting the success of the Gibb brothers from their early 60s hits to the stratospheric success of their R&B era in the 70s, the documentary takes a candid look at the brothers behind the scenes through the highs and lows of a 60-year-career.

Produced by Nigel Sinclair (Eight Days A Week), the documentary contains never-before-heard demos (including one that charts the creation of ‘How Deep Is Your Love’), new interviews with Barry Gibb and rare archive footage with Maurice (who passed away in 2003) and Robin (who died in 2012). With insights from Noel Gallagher, Coldplay’s Chris Martin, Justin Timberlake, Mark Ronson and more, it’s a must-watch music documentary for 2020.

We caught up with Frank, Nigel and legendary producer Bill Oaks (who compiled the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever and who features in the documentary) to find out more…

How did the idea for the documentary come about?

Frank Marshall: “Four years ago, I was introduced to Steve Barnett who was the new president of Capitol Records. I met him in his office and I was being nostalgic about having been in that very building as a teenager. My dad was a composer, arranger, producer and guitar player. I spent a lot of time in Studio A under the desk, when I probably wasn’t supposed to be there. We started talking about projects and [Steve] mentioned that they had just acquired the catalogue to the Bee Gees and I said, ‘Wow, that’d be an amazing documentary,’ and here we are. Then I went and found Nigel because I loved what he had done with The Beatles documentary and I needed a producer.”

Were you both Bee Gees fans in your youth?

Frank: “Yes, I’d say we were, for different reasons. I grew up in a musical family and I remember their music in the 70s. I didn’t really know them in the 60s. But when Saturday Night Fever came around, I was right there for those songs.”

Nigel Sinclair: “I was a Bee Gees fan. I was 18 in 1966-67 when the Bee Gees arrived and I remember watching them on Top of the Pops at the very beginning – I bought the first three or four records. The music was just completely different. ‘Massachusetts’ in particular, which of course was an immediate number 1 hit and probably would be again today if it was released. Then I saw them become not cool – and I’m embarrassed to say I probably thought that – then they became cool again.”

Bill, we see in the documentary how you started to work with the Bee Gees during this ‘not cool’ phase…

Bill Oakes: “[Laughs] Yes! They’d had such great success very young: much too young, perhaps. When the backlash came, I suppose after ‘How Can You Mend a Broken Heart’, that’s when I came along and moved them to a new producer [Arif Mardin]. They were finding their feet in another setting, which was more R&B. ‘Main Course’ really triggered the revival. That was hugely satisfying because at that point, they were being talked about as yesterday’s guys and Atlantic recommended to Robert Stigwood [their manager] that we drop them, which Robert, to his credit, wouldn’t hear of. Robert went out of his way to underwrite them, to give them one more chance and ‘Main Course’ was it and it exploded. ‘Jive Talkin’’ kicked it all off.”

Bee Gees and Robert Stigwood – Credit: Press

“They were being talked about as yesterday’s guys…and then ‘Jive Talking’ kicked it all off”

The documentary shows how ‘Jive Talking’ was sent anonymously to radio stations because nobody would play their records…

Bill: “Yes, that was one of my more inspired ideas! I knew the backlash at the radio level – [if] they saw ‘Bee Gees’ on it, it was just going in the bin. By midday on release day, we were getting a lot of excited calls: ‘Who is this?’ They had no idea it was the Bee Gees, but they’d already put it on the playlist and it was everywhere.”

We see the Bee Gees’ journey to Miami in the documentary: what difference did that make to the band?

Bill: “They had a great time there, away from London where they’d had all of the dramas of their breakups and outbursts. It was a very useful thing to put them into that little oasis and get them working again. They were actually a bit like kids, Maurice and Robin, when they got there, because Florida was new to them. Barry was always more grown-up about things.”

Frank: “They had this wonderful family dynamic. They really enjoyed what they did – it wasn’t a job; it was what they loved to do. And when you’re having fun you really create some special things as they did there [in Miami].”

Nigel: “In storytelling, how people deal with adversity is always more interesting than how they deal with fame. In 1971 when they got back together, they went through a wilderness period that we truncated because the important thing was that they stuck together and the decision to not give up before they got their break in Miami, which was a brother-based decision. They would have broken up, as Barry says, if they weren’t brothers [and] if they hadn’t have made that [journey].”

The Bee Gees – Credit: Press

“Barry was always more grown-up about things”

What was it like discovering the very first demo of ‘How Deep is Your Love’

Nigel: “[We] started interviewing the band that Barry had for that glorious period with Blue Weaver, Dennis Bryon and Alan Kendal. We’re talking about something that happened in their lives 40 years ago and they weren’t the stars, so getting them to talk took some skill. Blue Weaver mentioned he liked to record everything when he was working with Barry and we discovered that he had recorded the very first creation of ‘How Deep Is Your Love’. You find these treasures in the films and then, of course, the next question, which is one for Frank, is, ‘How do I use this?’”

Frank: “That’s actually what I love about making documentaries because it’s like going on a treasure hunt. You find these little gold nuggets and they’re inspiring. When we found out that he had these cassette tapes in a box in his closet, it was incredible. In my day job, I have a script, I know what we’re going to shoot every day, I know down to the minute what’s going to happen. When you’re making a documentary, it’s a free for all and that’s what’s exciting about making these discoveries – trying to fit them in to the story you’re telling. And of course, when Blue told us about creating ‘How Deep Is Your Love’ at the Château in France, it was another surprising, very emotional moment. It charts the birth of the song and it’s amazing. It’s a great feeling when you discover something like that.”

“We discovered…the very first creation of ‘How Deep Is Your Love’”

The documentary reveals how the Château d’Hérouville in France where they recorded Saturday Night Fever wasn’t quite what they were expecting…

Bill: “Yes, it was a real tip [laughs]. It sounded great, because Elton John had done his album [Honky Château] there. I thought, ‘Well, how bad can it be?’ When I got there, I was appalled, it looked like a garage. We’d gone there, Robert and I, to talk to them about doing the music for Saturday Night Fever.

“We had no songs for the movie at all. I don’t think they’d even read the script but I had a script with me and we just told them about this guy who works in a paint store and who goes out on Saturday night. That was the brief. It was remarkable that literally a few weeks later, we got this tape with these five great songs on it [‘Staying Alive’, ‘More Than A Woman’, ‘How Deep Is Your Love’, ‘If I Can’t Have You’ and ‘Night Fever’]. I mean, who would have guessed? I hadn’t talked them through the scenes. We needed a love song; we got ‘How Deep is Your Love?’ I think it’s one of the best demo tapes anyone’s ever received.”

The Bee Gees at the height of their fame in the 1970s – Credit: Press

“We just told them about this guy who works in a paint store and who goes out on Saturday night. That was the brief”

The brothers seemed closer than ever during this period. Was it important for you to include interviews with people like Nick Jonas and Noel Gallagher, to explore the dynamics behind family musical groups more?

Frank: “Yes, those were a couple of my favourites, to get the perspective from brothers in bands. And I think it was incredibly articulate and informative [and] you can’t get from anybody who isn’t a brother who hasn’t been in a band together. Like what Noel said about the sound – you can’t just go down to a shop and buy it: it’s a unique sound, brothers singing together.”

Nigel: “I remember when we interviewed Noel in Edinburgh, he said, ‘You can buy a Stratocaster and a box amp and sound like Buddy Holly, but you can’t sound like the Bee Gees.’ You can’t buy that.’ I remember thinking, ‘That’s going to be in the film.’ One of the things that we discovered… is that similar DNA in harmonies does create a different texture. If you listen to the way they sing together it’s a little bit different from, say, Crosby, Stills, and Nash who were quite fabulous but don’t have that brother texture.”

The documentary also shows the fragility of their relationship too…

Nigel: “We found this footage – they were being interviewed by some chat show host and they all look completely gorgeous. Barry’s there, at the peak of, ‘Barry is a god’: he’s created Saturday Night Fever and on a high. The interviewer says, ‘Well, you guys must have an exciting life, do you go to nightclubs a lot?’ Barry replies, ‘I just work all the time’ – which by the way is true – and then the other brothers say, ‘Sometimes he goes down to the traffic lights…and he thinks that’s exciting. You can see in Barry’s face how he’s only just okay with being mocked like this by his two siblings.”

John Travolta in ‘Saturday Night Fever’ – Credit: Alamy

The documentary explores how the film studio were very skeptical of Saturday Night Fever

Bill: “It was very apparent during post-production on the movie at Paramount in LA that we had something really special. That’s when it rankled a bit: they called it ‘Billy’s little disco movie.’ At that point, I’m thinking, ‘Well, they just don’t know.’ Of course, when it came out [and exploded], everyone at Paramount took responsibility for it. They said they always knew this was Rebel Without a Cause with music. I just learned very fast how success has so many fathers, of course!

“I do remember when we played ‘Stayin’ Alive’ for the first time, that really got people’s attention because it was that incredible walking beat. Playing that on a loudspeaker on the set was brilliant, because everyone started walking to it. Everyone started doing that strut. That was a perfect match of visuals and music.”

John Travolta was tipping it for an Oscar nod early on, but you were more cautious…

Bill: “It was his first proper film and when he asked me [about a possible Oscar nomination], we were shooting Grease. He was having a good time on set. It was an easier shoot in some ways. Fever was set in wintertime in Brooklyn, Grease is California in the summer. He was feeling good about himself, and he said, ‘Maybe an Academy Award nomination.’ I don’t think it was done out of confidence. It was testing the waters. I shot it down really, thinking, ‘Don’t go that far!’ He had the last laugh, of course.”

“I do remember when we played ‘Stayin’ Alive’ for the first time, that really got people’s attention”

How did the brothers cope with the success when Saturday Night Fever went global?

Bill: “I think they coped pretty well. I think Robin was more fascinated by the phenomenon than anyone: he was the one that always used to call me about chart positions and sales figures. He was almost neurotic about it. Maurice had a great time of it, because he’d always thought he was a star, really. He acted like one, and suddenly, he had the clothes to wear it. Barry was probably more thoughtful about it, but Saturday Night Fever changed their lives forever. What’s not to like? You’re on the cover of every magazine and the movie just wouldn’t quit. It was still playing in theatres months after it opened.”

Robin Gibb – Credit: Getty

The success of Saturday Night Fever was huge, but the documentary also shows how much of a backlash they experienced just a few years later…

Frank: “Yes, they were stunned by the backlash. The global superstardom they were experiencing had happened to only a couple – probably The Beatles and The Stones by then – but they didn’t see it coming. They were frustrated and stunned by it.

“It started with us trying to figure out what happened with this thing on a baseball field – people blowing up their albums. How did that happen? It was really about what was happening in the world – it wasn’t about the Bee Gees, they were just caught up in it, and they were as surprised as everybody else. And then they got mad. Then they got mad that they were being labelled as a disco group, and I was happy to be able to show a little of that fire in Barry. He was upset by this.”

Nigel: “[It was] a cataclysmic event, so unfair, and life doesn’t prepare you for that. If everybody’s lauding you and telling you you’re a genius, then suddenly the world is booing you…how do you deal with that? They were quite vitriolic about what happened.

“What we see in the film, which I think we’re very happy with the way it unfolded, is, again, their character. The character of the brotherhood. They settled down, went back to writing songs for other people. I can’t think of any other band that was able to make that turn into publishing so [successfully]. The Beatles talked about doing it, they always said what they’d do is become songwriters together, but, as we know, they didn’t.”

Bill: “I wouldn’t say that [it] represented the global opinion of the Bee Gees. It was not about the Bee Gees, it was about disco, and they were just the visible leaders of it [at the time].”

“They got mad that they were being labelled as a disco group”

The documentary also explores the legacy of Saturday Night Fever and the Bee Gees…

Bill: “It is a shock, a very pleasant shock, that Saturday Night Fever is still referenced as this ground-breaking movie. It was very nice to hear the appreciation of people like Justin Timberlake and Mark Ronson in the documentary. I think what it showed is that good song writing is eternal. It’s not set in any time. The Bee Gees will be remembered for their songwriting, more than anything, which is incredible. Their library of songs is without parallel.”

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