On DVD: The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story

The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story is an unusually frank Disney production, and it wisely avoids simplifying the strained relationship suggested by the evasive words of the Sherman brothers themselves. Bob and Dick Sherman were Disney's house songwriters beginning with Mary Poppins and continuing through The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and The Tigger Movie. As prolific as their working relationship was - including such non-Disney work as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Charlotte's Web, and Snoopy Come Home - the brothers were never exactly friends, having entirely different personalities and an intense rivalry that bubbled just far enough below the surface to allow them to continue working together.

Bob, senior to Dick by 2 ½ years, began his adult life with aspirations to be a writer of fiction and plays. Upon returning home, injured, following service in World War II, Bob entered college at the same time as Dick, who was beginning to show an aptitude for music and songwriting. The Shermans' parents were both entertainers themselves; their father was a successful Los Angeles-based songwriter, and their mother had been a movie actress during the silent era. Their father posed a direct challenge to his sons that they write a song together; that challenge successfully met, they went on to start a music publishing company that gained a high profile thanks in part to a relationship with Disney's music publishing business. That led to the Shermans writing a hit single for Annette Funicello, followed by another song for a Disney movie starring Funicello.

Shortly thereafter began the Shermans' very long and productive heyday, working full-time on the Disney lot for movies both animated and live-action, for the Disney television unit, and for the Disney parks (including "It's a Small World"). Their work for Disney in this capacity earned them Oscars, Grammies, and, recently, the National Medal of Arts.

The brothers' story is of interest for a number of reasons. First, their prodigious output of songs that virtually everyone knows is staggering. They wrote "You're Sixteen," "Chim Chim Cheree," "A Spoonful of Sugar," "Let's Get Together," "I Wan'na be Like You," and "Hushabye Mountain," among countless others. Then there's the fact that their story allows a glimpse behind the scenes at the Walt Disney Studios during the 1960s, when the studio was responsible for an increasingly varied output of motion pictures and television programming. The story of the Shermans' strained relationship adds yet another layer of interest to this documentary, which was produced and directed by their sons, Jeff (Bob) and Greg (Dick). The younger cousins would like to see their fathers reconcile, but it seems increasingly clear as we listen to the elder Shermans' words that this is unlikely, although Bob appears to be the one carrying the burden of bitterness, with Dick appearing more or less as the admiring younger brother.

The film doesn't conclude with reconciliation, and would have appeared suspicious if it had. The brothers' largely unspoken animosity is mingled with a mutual respect and obvious love, and the film works better and is more respectful of its audience without attempting too smooth over these rough edges in their relationship with facile "explanations" of the tension between them. The Boys is a heartfelt portrayal of show business, a peek into Walt Disney's managerial style, and a moving look at brotherly love and rivalry. 

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