The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story
- Directed by Gregory V. Sherman and Jeffrey C. Sherman
- Classification: NA
They wrote the songs that made the whole world - make that the small-fry world - sing. The names Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman will forever be entwined on the sheet music for beloved songs from family-film classics such as Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to the ubiquitous theme-park ditty It's A Small World (After All) .
However, as the heartwarming and thoroughly entertaining new documentary The Boys reveals, the brothers' prolific, upbeat output had a minor-key counterpoint sustained throughout most of their collaborative career, which continues to this day.
"We're 21/2 years and five eons apart," says Richard (Dick) Sherman, now 81, of his older brother Robert (Bob) Sherman early in the film.
Unravelling the mystery of the brothers' estrangement is the emotional centre of The Boys , co-directed by Gregory Sherman (son of Dick) and Jeffrey Sherman (son of Bob). The cousins - both successful writer-producers working primarily in television - met for the first time as adults in 2002 after a deep, decades-long "chill" between their families. In creating a tribute to their fathers' creative legacy, they hoped to close the gap between the brothers, once roommates, but now thousands of miles apart (Dick tinkling the ivories in L.A., Bob painting and writing in London).
While The Boys never quite delivers that emotional payoff, it does offer fascinating fodder for both movie and music buffs. It's a solid chapter in the history of American popular song, an examination of Walt Disney's final career triumphs, a glimpse at both the daily grind and the eureka moments of songwriting, and a story of family dynamics all rolled into one. Loaded with archival footage, stills and interviews with family, colleagues, actors (Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke) and industry admirers (Alan Menken, John Williams), The Boys should come with a guarantee that you will leave the theatre with at least one song bouncing around in your head like Tigger on a bender.
The Sherman brothers' penchant for a vaudeville vamp was no fluke. Their affectionate father, Al Sherman, a Russian-Jewish immigrant whose own father was court musician to Emperor Franz Joseph, improvised piano "mood music" for silent-film stars before becoming a successful Tin Pan Alley composer, known in particular for his spirit-lifting Depression-era songs. Al's story is one of the film's many engaging sidebars; he is credited with not only uniting his sons professionally but also keeping them together.
But the Shermans were also Walt Disney's "boys." The only songwriters in the studio's history to be put under contract, they entered the inner sanctum as Disney was starting to develop a movie based on a series of children's books by P.T. Travers. The section on Mary Poppins , which won five Oscars (including Best Song and Best Score for the Shermans), provides the film's most in-depth and hilarious behind-the-scenes moments, including audio recording of meetings with the crotchety Travers, who disapproved of all of their ideas.
While The Boys contrasts the brothers' temperaments and experiences (Bob served in the Second World War and saw many atrocities, a major dividing line), it also unites them through filmic devices. Stories from their career are often told by cutting back and forth between interviews, as if the brothers are in the same room, completing each other's thoughts. And at the juncture where the estrangement really took hold, the film uses Burl Ives's performance of On the Front Porch (from Summer Magic ) as the sonic backdrop for a montage of Sherman family movies on a split screen.
Anyone who has experienced a family cold war knows that the array of fights and slights that add up over the decades are almost impossible to express succinctly; they can sound like an episode of Dr. Phil when spoken aloud. With their fathers still alive and working, the Sherman cousins sidestep the "he said/he said" trap - which may disappoint some viewers, but is ultimately truthful and respectful. A planned feature version of the Sherman brothers' story (starring Ben Stiller as Dick and possibly Robert Downey Jr. as the more brooding Bob) may provide more answers. Nevertheless, The Boys has the emotional resonance to both break and lift your heart.
Special to The Globe and Mail