For decades now, whenever the Bee Gees or a solo Gibb brother announces a new release, the music media finds itself engaged in odd ritual acts of contrition. This curious journalistic exercise involves snarky descriptions of previous works, alongside dutiful accounting of sales figures and statistics (seven chart-topping hits in 1978 alone!) intended to show just how inescapable the Bee Gees were in the 1970s. “We said some unkind things,” goes the revisionist thinking in profile after profile. “We were wrong about these guys. No, really, they’re geniuses.”
A version of this happened after the Bee Gees’ first successes, those sad-boy melancholic hits of the later ‘60s about mining disasters and relationship torments. It happened again in the wake of the arty “Odessa,” a 1969 concept album that was not well received by the Bee Gees-buying public. It happened after the falsetto-fueled hysteria of “Jive Talkin’” and “You Should Be Dancing” and the hits from “Saturday Night Fever” died down. It happened following solo Gibb records and attempts by the Bee Gees to regroup as an adult pop act.
At each juncture, Barry Gibb says in this documentary, part of “The Great Songwriters” series, he and his now-deceased brothers Robin and Maurice thought they were finished. He recalls a low point in 1972, when the three Gibbs came to the conclusion that “it wasn’t going to happen for us.”
Each time, their response was the same: They just went away and wrote more songs — more than 1000 of them, across five decades. Songs that arrived on dinner breaks during recording sessions, or while sleeping. Songs that were small, curious, not necessarily accessible inquiries into the logic of love, and songs with sweeping sky-writing hooks that became worldwide megahits. And songs they had to give away when, after “Saturday Night Fever,” nobody wanted to hear the Bee Gees anymore.
Gibb recalls a debate between the brothers about “Islands in the Stream,” the 1983 duet recorded by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. All agreed the song, originally written for Marvin Gaye, was good, a likely hit. Maurice wanted the Bee Gees to do it. Barry, recognizing the post-“Fever” backlash within the industry, recommended giving it away. That thinking led to a number-one hit, followed by a string of significant hits for other artists.
“We wanted to write for other people,” Gibb says bluntly, “because that was a way of getting to radio. That was a way of being known as songwriters. …We really thought we were songwriters anyway.”
Not every hit-making entity could manage that pivot. The Bee Gees did it, not once but several times, with a laser focus on the fundamentals — verses that build and then evolve a curiosity-activating story, refrains that rattle inside your head whether you want them to or not. (Among Gibb’s theories on that: It’s important to pay attention to the way vowels sound when sung in certain registers.) The most enduring Bee Gees songs — “How Deep Is Your Love,” “To Love Somebody,” “Run to Me,” “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” — also revolve around breezily effortless melodies, the kind that transcend era and genre. They’re essentially pop standards, sturdy enough to inspire wildly divergent interpretations. Artists who’ve covered the Bee Gees include Al Green, Conway Twitty, Faith No More, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Swamp Dogg, among many others.
As he talks about the new recording, you sense from his words and the look in his eyes that working at music, and working with his sons, might have rescued him from a nasty spiral.
The film alternates between interview segments and performance footage shot in 2016, as Gibb was preparing to release “In the Now,” his first set of original music since the Bee Gees’ swan song from 2001, “This Is Where I Came In.” “In the Now” contains songs co-written with his sons Stephen and Ashley Gibb, and they’re featured in an extended interview segment devoted to the period after Barry Gibb’s brothers died, when he was not making music. Once again, Gibb confesses, he thought it was game over. As he talks about the new recording, you sense from his words and the look in his eyes that working at music, and working with his sons, might have rescued him from a nasty spiral.
Stephen Gibb, Ashley Gibb and Barry Gibb keep it in the family on “The Great Songwriters.”
The performances, shot close up and featuring an ace band, include “How Deep Is Your Love” and “You Should Be Dancing” as well as a trenchant new tune called “The Home Truth Song.” After the “You Should Be Dancing” performance, interviewer Paul Toogood asks about the scene at Criteria Studios in Miami, where the Bee Gees (and the Allman Brothers Band and many others) recorded. Gibb remembers cutting “You Should Be Dancing” and seeing David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash there in the room with the band, not the control room. The next thing he knew, Stills was playing percussion on the track.
Gibb’s got a new record in 2021, “Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers’ Songbook,” a series of duets with country artists including Jason Isbell. The media machine is already cranking up, and you know what that means: Talk about how critics got the Bee Gees all wrong, and how that disco thing was just one phase in a career. Because Barry Gibb, architect of so many moments of pop bliss, is all about the long game.