Monday, December 6, 2010

The Boys – The Sherman Brothers’ Story DVD Review

Their music is known throughout the world, been at the top of the Billboard charts, heard in Disney theme parks, and played an integral part in the success of many beloved movies as well.  Robert and Richard Sherman, professionally known as The Sherman Brothers, have arguably contributed more to the success of the Walt Disney empire than anyone else through their wonderful songs.

Just to give you an idea of how prolific they’ve been and how successful as well, here is a look at a small portion of the movies they’ve provided music for: The Sword in the Stone, Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Aristocats, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Charlotte’s Web, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and they are still producing even more music!
They’ve been nominated for nine Academy Awards and won two of them (Best Song and Best Score for Mary Poppins), and five Golden Globes, and three Grammy Awards (winning for Best Original Score for Mary Poppins)!  They’ve also been inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2005, given a star on the Walk of Fame in 1976, and awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2008, which is the highest honor given by the Unites States of America to artists.

Film (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

For as much joy these two men have brought the world, you’d think that they would’ve had their own happy-ever-after ending but unfortunately life got in the way.  Life started out pretty good for the two brothers whose father Al Sherman was a well known Tin Pan Alley songwriter who introduced music into their lives at an early age.  The Sherman family moved to Los Angeles because Al Sherman was offered a job at a studio, but when that fell through after they arrived the family decided to stay in L.A.

Growing up, Bob wanted to be a novelist while Dick became interested in music after a original song materialized in his head and he realized that he had a musical ability.  Eventually, Bob went into the military and during his service saw many terrible things and was even shot in the knee which left him dependent on a cane for the rest of his life.  He was also one of the first troops to enter the concentration camp of Dachau, all of which affected him deeply.  When he returned from the war, he was a changed man and the polar opposite of his sunny and outgoing brother Dick.

Despite their differences, they discovered that they worked really well together and began collaborating on music along with another partner for Bob’s new music company Music World Corporation.  When that partner grew jealous of Dick’s increased role, he threw scissors at Dick and Bob promptly threw him out of the office and from then on it was solely the Sherman Brothers.  Their first success came in 1958, when one of their songs “Tall Paul,” was covered by mouseketeer Annette Funicello.  After the success from that, they began writing more and more songs just for her and the popularity of those songs brought them to attention of Walt Disney who requested that write a song for her new movie The Horse-masters.  They went on to write more songs for Disney such as “The Monkey’s Uncle,” that featured The Beach Boys who were at that time, a relatively unknown band who sang the background chorus.

Walt Disney was so happy with the Sherman Brothers that he signed them on to be the in-house Disney songwriters and they began writing music for Disneyland attractions and the movies.  For the theme parks, they are best known for writing “It’s a Small World,” and “The Tiki Tiki Tiki Room” being the most prominent.  They had a life-changing hit with Mary Poppins which won them accolades and awards and success on a scale that they never dreamed of.

With songs like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “I Wanna Be Like You,” “Winnie-the-Pooh,” and more, they cemented their legendary status and earned the right to be the only songwriters ever put under contract by Walt Disney.  When Walt Disney died, their position and enjoyment level at Disney disappeared and they decided to go freelance which allowed them to join Cubby Broccoli’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang which also allowed them to re-team with a lot of the Mary Poppins cast and crew but also more awards and nominations for their work.

As good as things were professionally, the behind the scenes reality was that the brothers were drifting apart due to different personalities and lifestyle choices.  We get a glimpse of Bob’s desire to be apart and his brother’s disapproval of how much money he liked to spend, while we also see that underneath his sunny demeanor could have a temper and controlled his money tightly.  They would continue to work together professionally but that was it.  Their families no longer talked to each and they avoided each other publicly as much as they could which was really hard on their families.

As Dick’s son Gregg  later said, ““My family would see his family at a Sherman Brothers event, but we would never be seated at the same table or near them in the theater.   We would acknowledge that they existed, but we had no relationship with them.”  It was also hard on the other side of the family as well as Bob’s son Jeff also was unhappy with the new arrangement.   He would later state, “it’s uncomfortable to go to a premiere and smile for the camera, and then walk to separate sides of the theater.  I got dribs and drabs of the story as time went on, but we were all told ‘they have their life, we have our life and they shouldn’t cross.’  As adults, Gregg and I decided to break that tradition.”

After finally talking to each other at an after party for the new stage musical of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the sons of the Sherman Brothers, were able to finally talk and empathize with each others position.  “It was the first time we ever really spoke,” said  Jeff later, “We talked for hours at the after-party. As we caught up with each other, we realized that most of what we had been told about our family was very different. It was like we were looking through two separate halves of a pair of binoculars focused on the same thing.”  Their reunion led to the making of this documentary by the songwriters two sons who both conceived, produced and directed it which allowed a degree of intimacy and respect that really added a lot to the movie.

I found this documentary very moving and was saddened to discover that the men whose music I’ve loved my entire life have had such an unhappy relationship.  It’s not a matter of fault, or that there’s someone to blame since I believe that the brothers love each other but for some intangible reason, they can’t get past the walls of their self-imposed disconnection with each other.  It’s frankly amazing that they can continue to work together as well as they do considering the circumstances.  My guess, is that they’ve learned their own way of coping with that distance and how to get around it while working.  It’s apparent that Dick would love to have a close bond with his brother but sadly it’s equally clear that Bob has no interest in pursuing that.

There are some touching scenes where Dick reveals a beautiful poem that Bob wrote for him on his birthday that tells him how much Dick means to him, and it breaks your heart to see how much that means to Dick but in the end, they are still cut off from each other.  After Bob’s wife died, he moved to London to avoid seeing any memories of his late wife while Dick remains in Beverly Hills. Now that they’re separated by distance as well as emotion, any reconciliation at this point seems doubtful.  Bob is content to continue creating paintings, while Dick continues to make music and be the Sherman Brothers ambassador to the world at events celebrating them.  With insights and anecdotes from Dick Van Dyke, Julie Andrews, John Williams(!), Barbara Broccoli, Hayley Mills, John Lasseter, Alan Menken, Angela Lansbury, John Landis, Roy Disney, and of course interviews with both Dick and Bob and others, this is a comprehensive look into the success and personal failures of two immensely talented men.

Video (4 out of 5 stars)

This picture quality with its 1.78:1 aspect ratio is pretty good for a DVD.  Of course I would prefer to see this on Blu-ray but they did a good job on this.  The old footage looks good and the recently filmed interviews look great too.  Flesh-tones were a little to warm for my tastes, but the black levels are mostly good throughout the movie.  The detail is also good for a DVD and I think most people will be happy with this until a Blu-ray arrives.

Audio (3 out of 5 stars)

The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is pretty good.  Dialogue is clear and most importantly, the music sounds good for a documentary.  I do wish that they had allowed more of the Sherman Brothers musical numbers into the movie instead of just clips of them, but overall this is a satisfactory mix.

Special Features  (4 out of 5 stars)

I really enjoyed the extras on this DVD but I wish they had added some commentaries to it since there is so much history to cover.
Bonus Features Include:
  • Why They’re “The Boys” – Through interviews with their friends and co-workers from throughout the years, we learn how they earned their nickname as boys and how it stuck with them for their entire career.
  • Disney Studios in the ’60’s – A look at the era of the legendary studio when the Sherman Brothers were under contract and part of the life and culture of a creative playground of animators, filmmakers and producers. There’s also a nice duet of the boys and Walt.
  • Casting Mary Poppins – Learn how Julie Andrews got the part of Mary Poppins from the point of view of Bob and Richard and also from Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.  This was a nice synopsis and it had two of my favorites in it!
  • The Process – Join Richard Sherman for a look at the Sherman Brothers’ song writing process.  This was very interesting to see the interplay between them and how they go about creating these wonderful songs.
  • Theme Parks – In addition to composing scores for many classic Disney -movies, the Sherman Brothers also wrote many popular songs for Disney theme parks.   A talk about how they went about composing a song for rides such as “It’s a Small World,” and “The Tiki Tiki Tiki Room,” and other attractions that opened in Walt Disney World.
  • Roy Williams – Roy Williams was a Disney animator who had an office right next to the Sherman Brothers. Through Roy’s artwork, we learn some of the stories of what it was like to work in the Animation Building in the 1960’s through his rough drawings.  He would slip the artwork under their door and kept a continuous flow through the years and we get to see a lot of them.
  • Bob’s Art – In addition to being an amazing lyricist, Bob Sherman’s other passion is painting.   He doesn’t seem to have a set style but some of his work is very good and it appears that he has even had some art shows.  His website is
  • Celebration – A collection of testimonials from celebrities, Hollywood legends, and admirers who share their experiences about the Sherman Brothers, this piece earned “The Boys” the National Medal of Arts from the President of the United States.
  • Sherman Brothers’ Jukebox – This collection of Sherman Brothers songs and the stories behind the songs provides a unique look into the extensive careers of Bob and Richard. I really enjoyed the behind the scenes info and also just to listen to Bob and Dick play these songs for us as if they were in our living room.  I originally thought it was just a music jukebox that simply played the songs but it’s a lot more so don’t skip over this feature.  Here are the songs included:
    • “Tall Paul”
    • “Chim Chim Cher-ee”
    • “Feed the Birds”
    • “Gold Can Buy Anything (But Love)”
    • “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow”
    • “Jolly Holiday”
    • “Oh, Gee, Georgie!” (performed by Eddie Cantor, 1924)
    • “Up, Down and Touch The Ground”
    • “A Spoonful of Sugar,” performed on the guitar by Laurence Juber
    • “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”
    • “Ugly Bug Ball” Der Wienerschnitzel Commercial

Final Thoughts (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

This is a fascinating, touching, and illuminating look at one of the biggest songwriting teams since Gilbert and Sullivan, and Rodgers and Hammerstein.   I’m not sure why I am as sad for them as I am but I guess it’s because their music has brought me so much pleasure over the years and I wish that some of that magical happiness that they created was saved for themselves.  It is nice to see their sons step away from their father’s implacable example and to create something wonderful together without the same discord of their fathers.  At the very least, they’ve learned from their father’s mistakes which allows this film to end on a slightly optimistic note.
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter that a rift exists between the Sherman Brothers because it never stopped their infectious music from being shared with the world.  The tagline for the original poster (which should have been used for the DVD cover and you can find below), summed them up perfectly:  Brothers.  Partners.  Strangers.  True as that statement might be, pictures like the one above and the one below, gives me hope that perhaps one day they can be more than songwriting partners…but also the close brothers they once were.

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