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"The Boys": Those Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Shermans

by on December 3, 2010

Were Robert and Richard Sherman the greatest American songwriting team of the twentieth century? Considering the competition—the Gershwins, Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, to name just the most famous few—it’s probably no insult to admit they weren’t. They wrote plenty of forgettable songs; so did the other worthies. But the best Sherman songs can go toe to toe and eye to eye with the best of any of their rivals. Very few of those rivals can touch the Sherman skill at weaving together heart, musicality, intelligence, and a gift for storytelling. And none have written a catalog as famous or beloved.

“Spoonful of Sugar”; “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”; “Feed the Birds”; “Chim Chim Cher-ee”; “Winnie the Pooh”; “I Wanna Be Like You”; “Hushabye Mountain.” These aren’t just the standards of childhood, its Disney-produced soundtrack. They are rich, tuneful, evocative songs that sink into the imagination because they express things few of us have the wit or words to say on our own. They do better than tell us something new; they remind us of timeless truths we have forgotten. A love of dance and nonsense and monkeyshines; a plea for love and charity; a fear of growing up and losing innocence; a cry for safety and escape. They don’t just contain a thought; they unfold it and develop it and deepen it and sweeten it, and always with an ineluctable grace and lyricism. There is something almost Mozartean in the way their songs possess a deceptive modesty that cloaks a profound artistry. Simplicity is very hard, and songs that say exactly what they mean are very hard indeed. A good Sherman brothers’ song says exactly what it means, but it is so artful about it that you won’t grasp that meaning until it is over. At which point you will hit the back button and play it all over again; unless you don’t need to, because they are also instantly memorable.

The Shermans had their greatest successes at the Walt Disney studio, writing for movies ranging from The Sword in the Stone and The Parent Trap to The Aristocats and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. They won Oscars for Mary Poppins. Though they had successes elsewhere (most prominently for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the best Disney picture Disney never made) Disney probably made them what they were. Walt plucked them from a sea of other Hollywood-based songwriters, gave them a steady paycheck, an office, and a terrific range of properties. For Mary Poppins they had more time than they needed or wanted. He pulled them and pushed them and prodded them and encouraged them to do better than probably realized they could do, and in return they gave him great songs. Still, their reputation may have suffered from the association. The fraternal relation reinforces the impression that they were purveyors of family-film schmaltz; the long career with the master mouseketeer suggests a callow attachment to paychecks and job security; that they upheld the traditions of Tin Pan Alley even as the counterculture swallowed the musical landscape suggests they were cautious, conservative, and maybe even reactionary. Some people have never forgiven them for winning an Oscar for “Chim Chim Cher-ee” the same year A Hard Day’s Night didn’t even get any nominations.

The Boys is a new documentary about the Shermans, and it does something almost as impossible as one of their songs: It makes you see them (and through them much else) in a way that is both very new and very familiar; it makes you see the familiar in a new light, and it makes the new seem so obvious that you wonder how you could have missed it before. It won’t shatter any halfway accurate preconceptions you may about them and their relationship to Walt Disney, but it will make you appreciate just how much complexity there can be in something so simple in a fraternal bond.

The film begins by acknowledging and teasing a remarkable revelation about them: Although they worked closely together for almost fifty years, they never socialized, and their families were strangers to each other; when their two sons met at a premiere, it was the first time they had seen each other in forty years. Temperamentally the two are so different it seems they can’t be related. Richard, the younger one, is gregarious, extroverted, volcanically emotional, ceaselessly talkative. His brother is retiring, watchful, and guarded. But even these personas are riven with contradictions. The raucous Richard, who is the musical one, turns out to be a tightwad. The taciturn wordsmith, Robert, is the businessman who leaks money the way a sieve leaks water. Even their memories of their childhood conflict. Robert says they had little to do with each other; Richard says they were inseparable, if for no other reason than because he followed his big brother everywhere.

You keep waiting for the twist, the deep dark secret that will explain their vexed family dynamic. The twist is that there is no twist. Brothers fight, and so did these two. Eventually they evolved that very odd working mode, because it was the only way they could keep their successful partnership going. This is as surprising and inevitable as the discovery that bad medicine takes the sugar with it on the return trip up the gullet. There is a bit more, but the documentary doesn’t make over much of the other key difference between them: Robert was old enough to enlist in the army in World War II, where he not only killed other men but suffered hard wounds; he was also one of the first Americans to see the inside of Dachau. His brother, by contrast, served later in the reserves, never heard a shot fired in anger, and led an army band.

The really great thing about this documentary, though, is the way that it is fashioned. The boys themselves are front and center in most it, in interviews that were clearly made over a very long period of time in a lot of different locations; as a result both speak with much more depth and wisdom than is usual in these things: the filmmakers have given them the time to reflect and wrestle with themselves. Both are terrific raconteurs and the movie bounces along on their reminiscences. Richard seems constitutionally incapable of telling a boring story. Robert is hampered by a weak voice, but his sometimes labored delivery actually enhances his grave and simple memories; it is especially moving to hear him speak of the concentration camp with the devastating clarity of a man who still has nightmares about what he found inside. The interviews are full candid moments: Richard touring his childhood home, which he hasn’t been inside since 1940; Robert dressing himself for a stage premiere; moments of raw emotion when one or the other will break down in tears and refuse to continue the interview. It treats them with immense respect, but it also tears at their façade just enough that we can see and feel the presence of real brothers who are still trying to figure out what they mean to each other.

Their own stories are strongly supported by archival footage, from movies and period interviews, and best of all from old photographs and extensive home movies. Studded throughout we get perceptive and illuminating comments from such collaborators as Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke; friends like A. J. Carothers; executives like Roy E. Disney; industry players and veterans like Robert Osborne, John Lasseter, John Landis, Barbara Broccoli, and John Williams; and from members of their own families.

The Sherman talent for the collaborative crafting of art that is simple, compelling, and emotionally piercing may be genetic. This sensational documentary, which manages to be both uplifting and deeply moving, was made by two cousins: Jeff and Gregory Sherman, the boys’ own boys.

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