- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 9, 2000

In a better world, it always would be cool to like the Bee Gees.

After all, in a recording career that spans five decades, the Brothers Gibb have composed, sung and sold more lasting pop music than almost anyone else in the business.

Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb have kept at their craft, mounting comebacks with seemingly boundless determination in the face of personal and professional setbacks that would paralyze less resilient or talented artists.

So. How could a love so right turn out to be so wrong?

One answer, according to a new installment of the A&E; cable network's "Biography" series, is that the Bee Gees are undeserving casualties of hipper-than-thou critics and notoriously unfaithful American music buyers.

"Bee Gees: This Is Where I Came In," which debuts tomorrow night, is a friendly reappraisal by co-producers David Leaf and John Scheinfeld, who have partnered before to chronicle pop culture and who also wrote and directed the project.

Mr. Leaf and Mr. Scheinfeld build an impressive case for the worthiness of the Bee Gees' creative achievement worldwide nearly 34 years since their initial success on the U.S. and British charts. The two-hour documentary precedes release of a new album, also called "This Is Where I Came In," with which the brothers hope to secure their latest comeback after a triumphant induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.

"My mission," Barry Gibb says with a laugh at one point, "is to confound the critics."

Among those offering anecdotes and observations are their mum, Barbara Gibb, and longtime manager, Robert Stigwood. The program leans most heavily, though, on insights from Sir George Martin, revered producer of the Beatles' recordings, and Timothy White, noted music writer and editor in chief of Billboard magazine, who argue that the Bee Gees are immeasurably more than guilty pleasures.

"I don't know anybody who can sing harmony quite so naturally as they do," Mr. Martin says. "Undoubtedly, the Bee Gees will be looked back upon as a very important part of the 20th century, unique in respect of their musical contributions in writing, performing and producing."

Most effectively, however, big brother Barry, now 54, and fraternal twins Robin and Maurice, 51, each face the camera to help chart their musical evolution from lush orchestral pop to an idiosyncratic fusion of rhythm and blues and "blue-eyed soul." Succinct excerpts from individual interviews supply an endearing human thread.

"Yes, I was a rogue — I admit it," says Barry, the babe-magnet of the three, in alluding to his boorish sexual conquests as a young man.

In a segment covering their estrangement and 18-month breakup as the '70s dawned, each now-wiser brother identifies a reason for the split.

Maurice: "I call it lack of maturity."

Robin: "Too much happening too soon."

Barry: "What happened was drugs."

What makes the show compulsively watchable, though, is wise use of a wealth of still photographs and film footage, some of it from home movies. The images capture the brothers at work and play from their earliest days as an adolescent novelty act in Australia, where their father, struggling drummer-band leader Hugh Gibb, had moved the family in 1958 from Manchester, England.

Among the clips are vintage lip-sync or in-concert versions of dozens of original compositions, among them such hits as "New York Mining Disaster 1941," "To Love Somebody," "I've Gotta Get a Message to You," "I Started a Joke," "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart," "Jive Talkin'," "Nights on Broadway," "You Should Be Dancing," "Love So Right," "How Deep Is Your Love," "Stayin' Alive," "Too Much Heaven," "Tragedy," "One" and "Alone."

The program, with Harry Smith as host and narrator, also delivers plenty of rich detail: As a toddler, Barry was hospitalized for three months after tipping a kettle of tea onto himself; he didn't speak until he was 3. Robin was a bit of a troublemaker and firebug as a boy; he narrowly escaped death in a train derailment outside London in 1968 that killed 49 and injured 78. Maurice, more gregarious than his twin, became a functional alcoholic for many years.

One unfortunate lapse is emphasizing the key role of Hugh Gibb in his boys' initial success and then losing track of him.

Overall, the results are far more satisfactory to knowledgeable fan and casual viewer alike than the "Biography" portrait earlier this year of another cultural icon, Bob Dylan, which failed to exploit even the simplest of solutions to its subject's refusal to cooperate.

Yes, Mr. Leaf and Mr. Scheinfeld gloss over some unpleasantness here and there. For example, the descent into drug abuse of younger brother Andy, a teen idol who died shortly after turning 30, is treated with more sentimentality than unblinking journalism.

On the whole, "This Is Where I Came In" benefits enormously from the access granted by the extended Gibb family. More to the point, perhaps, it makes you hungry for some Bee Gees.

{*}{*}{*}WHAT: "Bee Gees: This Is Where I Came In"WHERE: A&EWHEN;: 8 p.m. tomorrow

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