Tuesday, May 19, 2009

“The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story”

(Article published today at Hell On Frisco Bay)

Although Robert and Richard Sherman might not be household names today, chances are it would only take a fraction of a second for someone listening to one of their songs to instantly recognize it and immediately be transported back to their youth, all while singing along to every word.

For 50 years now, the Sherman Brothers have been writing some of the most well-known and beloved music ever produced for film, television, stage and even amusement parks. Ranging from “Mary Poppins” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” to “Winnie The Pooh” and “It’s A Small World,” the output of the two musically gifted siblings has been absolutely astonishing—and because of the fact that they have produced so much work together over the years, and the tunes are almost universally upbeat and inspiring for children, the true story behind their tumultuous personal relationship with one another is doubly fascinating.

“The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story” is a new documentary looking at the lives of these two award-winning men, produced and directed by their two sons, cousins Jeffrey and Gregory Sherman, who didn’t know each other growing up even though they only lived a few blocks away from one another.

The world premiere screening of the deeply moving film took place in San Francisco on April 25th at the theater in the Letterman Digital Arts Complex, George Lucas’ new high-tech headquarters in the Presidio, the former army base that will also be home to the new Disney Family Museum later this year.

The packed event, part of the 52nd annual San Francisco International Film Festival, brought out all sorts of film-goers, ranging from small children to grandparents, including a sizable group from Disney that filled the middle section of the seating area.

Composed of several different types of cleverly woven together footage, including current interviews, clips from films, vintage behind the scenes home movies, personal family photos and more, “The Boys” starts out by giving some background on Robert and Richard Sherman’s family, particularly their father, the famous Tin Pan Alley songwriter Al Sherman.

Providing a backdrop for some of the brothers’ early influences, the documentary makes it clear that the two always had different personalities and interests, which were only widened when the elder Robert went off to fight in World War II and was wounded in combat. His physical injuries and the emotional scars from his time in the European portion of the conflict are slowly brought up over the course of the film, shedding light on his outlook on life, particularly when it is revealed that he was among the first Americans to liberate the Dachau concentration camp near the end of the war. He is clearly still haunted by what he saw, and he talks about how creating joyful art helped "make the horror go away."

Robert and Richard Sherman, now 83 and 80, respectively, are interviewed separately throughout the film, with Robert now living in London, while Richard still resides in Southern California. Many of the sequences segue from current interview footage to nicely rendered, almost three-dimensional restored photos from the past, while the interviews continue as voice-overs.

In addition to interviews with the Sherman Brothers and their sons, the film features words and thoughts from other family members and several people who have worked with them or admired their songs over the years, including Dick Van Dyke, Julie Andrews, John Landis, Angela Lansbury and Ben Stiller, who served as an Executive Producer on the project.

Tracing the story of their music career back to when they were getting ready for college, the film details how Robert had already made up his mind to major in writing, while Richard wasn’t sure what he wanted to do until one day while walking down the street he found himself with a tune running through his mind that he didn’t know where it had come from. Running home to the family piano to figure out how to play the melody he heard in his head, his father walked in on him, asked what he was doing, and when he was told, he immediately suggested to his son that he should become a music major.

After the two graduated and moved back to southern California, they shared an apartment, living together out of economic necessity, with both concentrating on their own muses—Robert on writing a novel and poems, while Dick wrote and played music. One day their father suggested they work together on something, which they did; their first published song was "Gold Can Buy You Anything But Love," recorded by the legendary Gene Autry.

The documentary shows how this was the impetus for their continued teamwork, and then details The Sherman Brothers’ first big break with Disney, when they wrote "Tall Paul" for Annette Funicello in 1959.

Both brothers obviously still love Walt Disney and appreciate the opportunity that he gave them; as they talk about their first meeting with him, and how they got their job, they start to choke back tears a bit, and later on in the film they do the same when recalling the last time they saw Disney before he passed away in 1966. They relate the story of going to a movie premiere with him, and that at the end of the night, he came up to them and said, “Keep up the good work, boys”—something that he had never done before.

In a further touching tribute to Disney, the documentary then shows a still photo of him, with the camera panning towards the sky where a drawing of Mickey Mouse is crying. The scene then shifts to home movies of Disney throwing seeds to a flock of birds, all while the song “Feed The Birds” from “Mary Poppins” is played. Richard Sherman explains that Disney always asked them to play that particular song if they were in his office at the end of the week, that it was one of his favorites.

Among the interesting background stories and insider’s looks into how the some of the songs they wrote were originally created is one about how Jeff Sherman came home one day from school to find his father struggling to work on a new song for “Mary Poppins.” Robert Sherman looked up from his work, and asked how his son’s day had been, who related that he and the other students had to have a vaccination. Robert then asked if it was given through a shot, to which Jeff replied that they had “just taken a spoon and poured the medicine over a sugar cube” for them to eat. A current shot of Jeff imitating his father is then shown, nodding his head in thought, and then saying, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down…”

Many, many other clips from movies and songs are used throughout the lively 100 minute film, including “Charlotte’s Web,” “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” “Snoopy Come Home,” “The Jungle Book,” and “The Tiki Tiki Tiki Room.”

Interwoven into these wonderful snippets of their work is a gradual attempt at explaining the story behind the Sherman Brothers’ eventual personal estrangement—the case for one reason in particular is not made, but rather it seems that years and years of little things building up led to their current situation, among the factors being marital problems, financial considerations, and the general outward personalities of the two—who continue to work together across a long distance, thanks to advances in technology—but they just can’t seem to reconnect on a personal level for themselves, or for their families.

At the end of the documentary, the two filmmaker cousins show their trip to the recent premiere of “Mary Poppins The Musical,” and in voice-overs discuss how they had hoped that through the making of this film, they could convince their fathers to reconcile and re-form their personal relationship. A sequence of the two brothers greeting each other cordially on the red carpet is shown, but then one of the sons comes back on to finish the narration, saying “unlike a Sherman Brothers song, not all stories have a happy ending.”

After the screening, Richard, Jeff and Greg Sherman appeared in person for a question and answer session, walking to the front of the theater to a standing ovation.

One of the questions posed for Richard Sherman asked about how he felt when he was riding “It’s A Small World,” or was in a place where one of their songs was being played, and people were enjoying it, but didn’t know that he was one of the people who had created it. He said he a good answer for that, that he would share a story from his childhood—when he went to a big football game with his father, during halftime the marching bands came out and played "You Gotta Be A Football Hero," a song that his father had co-written. The crowd was all cheering along and clapping to the song, and as a kid he asked his dad how he felt, to which his father replied “It feels good, kiddo.”

Richard Sherman then looked around at the audience at the Letterman Theater, smiled, and said, “That's how I feel, it's feels good!”

Another question asked of the two filmmakers was what they had learned while making the documentary. Jeff Sherman, Robert’s son, began talking about how he really started to get to know his father, but he started getting a little overwhelmed, and had to choke back tears. Richard chimed in, saying, “See, we Sherman’s are an emotional bunch!” which drew supportive applause.

Shortly thereafter, the three were talking about all of the people that helped them with the film, and Richard mentioned that two of the people in the picture had recently passed away after filming their interviews—he then started choking up himself, and he said, “See?”

Jeff Sherman then looked at his cousin, and said, “You’re next!” Greg looked over at him, back at the audience, and then grinned a little, pointing at his head, quietly staying, “Sports scores…sports scores,” giving away the fact that he was trying to think of other things to stop the flow of tears coming.

Overall, “The Boys” is a very well made documentary, and is a must see for anyone who grew up listening to the Sherman Brothers’ unforgettable songs, though it may not be entirely suitable for young children due to some of it’s highly emotional scenes.

“The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story” opens May 22nd at the AMC Metreon in San Francisco.

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