Published Aug 20, 2009It doesn't take long for The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story to sell Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman as worthy documentary subjects. In the opening moments, a parade of illustrious talking heads, including Ben Stiller, John Landis, Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, Roy Disney and John Lasseter (later joined by Robert Osborne, Debbie Reynolds, Leonard Maltin, Hayley Mills and many others), effusively sing the brothers' praises as excerpts of Sherman songs from the likes of Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Jungle Book, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day and any number of Disneyworld rides play. For someone like me, who memorized about a dozen of these songs during my kindergarten years, a movie like this would have to be pretty wrongheaded to screw up.
As Walt Disney's favourite in-house songwriters, "Bob and Dick" complemented each other perfectly. Bob, a downbeat, psychologically scarred WWII vet, is characterized by one of the interviewees as "Feed the Birds" melancholy compared to his "Supercalifragilistic" younger brother, the jovial and high-spirited Dick. Several people suggest that the brothers' opposite temperaments helped create songs that were literate but accessible, sweet but not saccharine. It certainly didn't help their personal lives. Now in their 80s, the brothers, never especially close even during the best of times, are barely on speaking terms. Stock footage of the Shermans appearing on TV together during the '80s and '90s, donning the guises of affably bickering siblings, becomes downright grim in this context.
Though directed by two of the songwriters' sons, The Boys has trouble penetrating the depths of their relationship. It never fully explains what caused their rift and what about their differing personalities caused them to go so far as sit on opposite sides of the auditorium when Chitty Chitty Bang Bang premiered in the London West End. Still, even if the Shermans are reticent about letting their guards down (at one point Dick flatly refuses to discuss the bad times on camera), it is fascinating when the filmmakers occasionally put a dent in their protective armour, as with a scene near the end where Dick breaks down crying while reading an affectionate poem Bob recently composed for him.
Strained as their relationship may be, the fact that the Shermans continue to occasionally work together must mean they still have some sort of bond. Perhaps it's just as well that it remains a mystery to us. (Disney/Buena Vista)