They created some of the happiest songs on earth, yet there was considerable sibling disharmony between the still-estranged subjects of “The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story.” Co-directed by their sons, the pic charts the many career highlights for a duo that composed indelible ditties for “Mary Poppins,” “The Jungle Book,” and non-Disney family classics like “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Engaging docu draws on plentiful archival footage and A-list interviewees, and should lure dedicated nostalgists when it launches May 22 in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, though wider exposure awaits in ancillary formats.
A few years ago, producer-helmers Gregory V. and Jeffrey C. Sherman met for the first time since childhood at the Oscars, eventually deciding to make this feature. Their goal was to both honor their fathers and suss out why their respective families had been incommunicado for decades.
While “Boys” doesn’t exactly dish dirt — the rift is explained as a basic personality conflict– the brotherly non-love does lend the pic some dramatic heft. That’s a welcome shift from most inhouse docus celebrating Disney history, which tend to blandly avoid admitting even the possibility of behind-scenes conflict. (It’s worth noting that Trudi Styler’s “The Sweatbox,” an unusually frank examination of creative differences over “The Emperor’s New Groove,” mysteriously vanished into thin air after its 2002 Toronto fest preem.)
Themselves the sons of successful Tin Pan Alley-turned-Hollywood songsmith Al Sherman, Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman wound up college freshmen at the same time, despite a 2½-year age gap. Younger sib Dick was a larky Southern California teen, while sober older brother Bob had already served in WWII. Former wanted to compose serious music (the snippets heard are quite lovely), while the latter aspired to write the Great American Novel.
But when their dad dared them to collaborate as composer and lyricist on a pop song, their very first effort was recorded by cowboy star Gene Autry. After a few struggling years, they had the good fortune to attract some Mouse House assignments, scoring hits for Mouseketeer Annette Funicello and penning songs for a couple of Hayley Mills vehicles (including “The Parent Trap”).
Their ship really came in with “Mary Poppins,” with “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” et al. constituting perhaps the single greatest song score for a family screen musical. After that success, they became the studio’s staff songwriters, writing delightful numbers for more films, “Winnie the Pooh” TV specials, even themepark attractions.
But with Walt Disney’s 1966 death, the brothers lost both mentor and job security. This exacerbated tensions between them, with Dick’s frenetic, impulsive work style chafing against Bob’s methodical one. As their social lives separated, so finally did their professional bond. A poignant recent moment shows one brother coolly ignoring the other’s reconciliation overtures at the legit-stage “Poppins” premiere.
Unlike many helmers these days who insert themselves into their own docs, the junior Shermans keep the spotlight strictly on their subjects, as well as a host of admiring former collaborators and fellow composers, from Julie Andrews to “Wicked’s” Stephen Schwartz. (Exec producer Ben Stiller turns up as a lifelong fan.) Archival materials’ condition and overall assembly are first-rate.