Monday, August 24, 2009

Here's To "The Boys"!

This past weekend I went to see the new documentary, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story. It's all about the lives of Robert and Richard Sherman (aka Bob and Dick), and their long career as film music composers, much of that time spent under contract with the Disney Studio. The shocking revelation in this film though, is that, despite their longtime collaboration on beloved film music, the two brothers did not get along or socialize outside of their office. Sadly, this also meant that they kept their families away from each other for decades, not really knowing much about their respective in-laws, uncles, aunts and cousins.

Fortunately, however, that particular aspect has come to an end since cousins Jeff (son of Bob) and Greg (son of Dick) met in 2002 at the premiere of the stage production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. They have now collaborated on producing this documentary that pulls back the curtain on the lives and career of their fathers, not shying away from the animosity that still exists between them, yet never really speculating on how it all started in the first place. In covering their professional careers, they illustrate it with song/film clips from the movies they composed for, as well as interviewing various friends, colleagues, and such luminary stars as Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke from Mary Poppins. The brothers themselves were interviewed separately for this doc, only appearing together in stock footage from their Disney years, Oscar ceremony, etc.

Like I said, the cousins do not try to explain the reason behind their fathers' estrangement, yet there are some clues that may suggest what went on to cause it. Most notable I thought was the wartime experience of Bob Sherman in World War II, which I think must have profoundly damaged him, not only from the bullets he took in his knee that left him with a limp, but moreso from the atrocities he witnessed, particularly the corpses he saw rotting in a concentration camp after it had been liberated. I suspect that it was all of this emotional trauma that caused him to retreat more and more into his own little world, eventually leading to him moving in recent years to London to paint and write.

If I recall correctly, I think it was Imagineer Bruce Gordon* who at one point in the documentary describes the brothers as being like Lennon and McCartney. He says that Dick was more like the sunny and ebullient Paul, while Bob was more like the brooding but artistic John. That seems like a very accurate impression based on how they come across in the film. In fact, it seemed that whenever Bob offered up his thoughts on Dick, it was usually in the form of petty put-downs, whereas Dick was more likely to speak of Bob with feelings of hero worship for his older brother. Though at the outset of the film, they both blame the other one for having "pulled away", I suspect that Bob was indeed the one to initially distance himself from Dick, and not vice versa.

Back in 1994, The National Fantasy Fan Club (NFFC), an organization for Disney enthusiasts, though not officially sanctioned by Disney, asked me if I could do a caricature of the Shermans that they could print up as a "fan card" to give out to all the attendees at their convention that year. Bob and Dick were to be special guest speakers at the NFFC Con and the original art would be presented to them there, while fans could have them autograph the printed cards. In return for volunteering my art, I did ask that they have Bob and Dick sign a card for me too, as I wasn't going to be able to attend the event held in California. As you can see, they complied, and the art you see at the top of this post is that fan card. Incidentally, the signatures on the right were pre-printed, but they signed it personally to me on the left. What I find interesting in retrospect of having now seen this documentary, is that even their autographs are rather telling. Bob has signed it more reservedly, while Dick has been more colourful in his greeting. Had I known back then that they did not get along, I probably would have drawn them as separate caricatures, so they could frame them up individually. I wonder where the original art ended up?

Anyway, despite their strange separate lives, I will continue to love and enjoy their wonderful legacy of Disney music, including such favourite scores as Mary Poppins and my beloved The Jungle Book. Thank you, Bob and Dick!

* Tragically, Bruce Gordon , talented Imagineer and well loved Disneyland historian died after the making of this film, at age 56.

The Boys is currently only playing locally at the Dundas AMC theatre in Toronto. Please go and support this film!!


alan Anderson said...

In my estimation the Sherman Brothers are the greatest composers in the history of the cinema. They have produced more memorable songs than anyone I can think of. They were brilliant. I wish I could tell the surviving brother myself how much I have enjoyed and still enjoy his music

Pete Emslie said...

Just to clarify, it was Bruce Gordon the Disney Imagineer who tragically passed away. Both of the Shermans are still around today, although Robert Sherman is definitely looking frail now.

Floyd Norman said...

I loved working with these guys. From "The Jungle Book" to "The Tigger Movie," it's always been a joy.

You're correct that Richard has always been the "sunny" brother.

Bruce Gordon was a pal as well. Our last project together was the Walt Disney Family Museum.

Jeff Sherman said...

There were deeper reasons beyond what we showed in the film for the brothers' estrangement and, trust me, my Dad (Bob) is not the cause of the rift. Quite the contrary. Bob was always a joy at home, a terrific dad; funny, warm, gentle and engaging. I'm saddened that it came across to the author of this piece that he was merely petty about Dick. The part he must be referring to was when the brothers spoke about their childhood. Dick was an out of control kid who, by all accounts, was a "little devil" who wound up being sent to military school -- thus the annoyance expressed by my dad and others we spoke to. Beyond that, my Dad only has words of praise for his brother in the film. The personal reasons for their rift I will continue not to detail, but rest assured it was not Bob's doing. What my cousin and i tried to show in the film is that it's not unusual for siblings to have issues, especially siblings in business together. What is incredible and wonderful about the Sherman Brothers is that they got beyond these issues for 60 years and created, arguably, the greatest body of music and lyrics in family entertainment.

Pete Emslie said...

Hi Jeff,

My apologies if my impression of the beginning of the brothers' estrangement tilts more towards your father pushing away. Again, just my impression based on what info there is in the documentary, since no definitive reasons are given. Regardless of what started it all, I must say that it left me very sad, as I'd always assumed they were best of friends throughout their long professional songwriting career.

By the way, another "revelation" during the doc was finding out that you were married to Wendy Liebman. I think Wendy is a brilliant comedienne, and coincidentally I had my students sketching her only a few weeks ago from a recorded performance at Montreal's "Just For Laughs" festival, as she has such expressive features!