No Concessions: The Sherman Brothers’ Spoonful of Bitterness

Written by Film, Film Reviews, No Concessions

Here it is, not even June and with a case of blockbuster fatigue already. Pro and con, the fourth (fourth!) Terminator movie has already been dissected and dismantled around here, and the notion of being strapped to a mopey fun machine piloted by the one-dimensional Christian Bale and the non-dimensional McG had me grinding my gears. Tom Hanks can rattle the Catholic Church with his latest symbols search without me. But, living up to my obligations at this time of the year, I did see a movie featuring Ben Stiller.

Not the sequel (sequel!) to A Night at the Museum, but The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story, which he co-executive produced and appears in, waxing nostalgic about the supercalifragilisticexpialidocious songwriting team behind Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Winnie the Pooh, and so much more. Who wouldn’t? These tunesmiths have touched every kid born since they commenced their partnership in 1951. In the documentary, Poppins co-star Dick Van Dyke recalls a recent encounter with a 22-month-old who knew the lyrics of its Oscar-winning score by heart. Theirs is a gift that keeps on giving.

The Boys shows how inspiration struck. In delightful clips, we see Richard, the younger, more spontaneous brother, pulling zany lyrics out of thin air that Robert, the more self-contained one, faithfully transcribed, adding his own bits as the words tumbled out. (“A Spoonful of Sugar,” one of the Mary Poppins classics, sprang from Richard’s son’s description of receiving polio vaccine.) So many filmmaker-related documentaries founder on not having the rights to show the choicest footage, but The Boys isn’t one of them. Disney produced the film, without, thankfully, imposing on it; the Sherman Brothers’ achievement is inseparable from the studio’s, and having to work around the footage would have been impossible.

The documentary shows how Walt Disney’s final dreams would have been, if not impossible, certainly less than fully realized if he and the Shermans hadn’t collaborated. On their own, the sons of Tin Pan Alley songwriter Al Sherman (nowadays best known for “He’s So Unusual,” which Cyndi Lauper covered so indelibly on She’s So Unusual) were doing OK; in 1960, they had a hit with Johnny Burnette’s rendition of “You’re Sixteen,” which Ringo Starr took to the top of the charts in 1974. By then, the Shermans were as big as the Beatles, in their own groove. Uncle Walt liked their sensibility and put it to work for Annette Funicello and other Mouseketeers, then offered them the plum assignment of Poppins, which, thanks in part to the suspicions and irascibility of author P.L. Travers, didn’t achieve the lift-off of its heroine until 1964. In the 60s, the Hollywood studio system was on its last legs, but Disney was a world unto its own, and the Shermans, as staff songwriters, were princes of the realm.

Thrilled by the opportunity to have a creative home—and the regular, escalating paychecks that went with it—they did whatever needed doing as staff songwriters. This included writing tunes to accompany Disney’s theme park rides (the once-heard-never-forgotten “It’s a Small World” was a last-minute replacement for a Babel of a song that hadn’t clicked when the ride was introduced at the 1964 New York World’s Fair) and a variety of movies, some great, and some, well, like this one, which Walt assigned them the day after they won Best Song (“Chim Chim Cher-ee”) and Best Music Score Oscars for Poppins:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/SQG10A-ymtg" width="425" height="344" allowfullscreen="true" fvars="fs=1" /]

No matter. The boys were as ape for Disney as Annette and the Beach Boys were for The Monkey’s Uncle. Even their lesser credits set an unerring tone for the show to follow: funny, sentimental, rousing, they were always in perfect pitch. But Disney’s death, in 1966, destabilized them. They never lost the beat, freelancing for the studio on films like The Aristocats (1970) and Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), branching out with non-Disney hits like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), Snoopy, Come Home (1972), and Charlotte’s Web (1973), and taking on Broadway with the 1974 musical Over Here!, which featured John Travolta, Treat Williams, and Marilu Henner. In 2000 they were back at Disney, working with Kenny Loggins on The Tigger Movie. Something, however, had changed irreparably.

The Boys is carried aloft by the good times at Disney, with Julie Andrews and Hayley Mills aboard to reminisce. After Walt’s death, however, you can’t help but notice that there’s no contemporary footage of the Shermans together. The Boys was co-directed by Gregory V. Sherman (Richard’s son) and Jeffrey Sherman (Robert’s) and is a fitting tribute to their talent. But it was also intended to reunite them, after a decades-long estrangement so deep that their sons only got acquainted as adults. Messengers, faxes, and cordial, wary conversations have gotten them through work and personal appearances, including last year’s receipt of a National Medal of Arts.

Socially, they’re deep in the dark, to borrow a song title from Charlotte’s Web. What happened is never made clear, and neither wants to discuss it. Theories abound; their contrasting wives, as much as their contrasting personalities are fingered as culprits. Robert wanted to write great novels, and Richard wanted to compose classical scores, and they may resent one another for only being able to function as a team in an entirely different vein from what they set out to accomplish as individuals. A World War II veteran, Robert helped liberate Dachau, memories of which may have led to an early 70s breakdown that neither brother handled well. Or, as someone remarks, it may be that the friction needed to produce great popular art eventually caused them to melt down as siblings. The end of The Boys, as the brothers meet up at the Broadway premiere of the Mary Poppins musical in 2006, is more Arthur Miller than Walt Disney.

The undertow of melancholy to the Sherman Brothers’ story is far more compelling than what’s on thousands of more screens these days. Culturally, their story is in some way our own, and naturally we want Robert, age 83, and Richard, 80, to find a happy ending. Or at least the tranquility that one of their Chitty Chitty Bang Bang songs brought David Gilmour in concert:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/n1H-zI3Qvsk" width="425" height="344" allowfullscreen="true" fvars="fs=1" /]

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]