- The Washington Times - Friday, November 6, 2009

George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter — the names bandied around for the title of Greatest American Songwriter are a familiar bunch. Less well-known are the handles of the Sherman Brothers. Yet their songs are just as memorable — maybe moreso.

As “Toy Story” director John Lasseter says in the documentary “The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story,” once you hear a Sherman Brothers song, you remember it the rest of your life.

Julie Andrews, who as Mary Poppins sang some of the brothers’ most unforgettable songs, points out, though, “So many people know the songs, but not many know the boys.”

“The Boys” thus serves two purposes: It makes an unwitting but convincing case that the Sherman Brothers are on a level with those other storied names. And it tells a fascinating, heartbreaking story about how two men who brought so many people so much joy took no pleasure in each other’s talented company.

Like many of the other great songwriters of the golden age of American popular music, the Sherman Brothers were the sons of Jewish immigrants. Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman also were the sons of a musician, Tin Pan Alley songwriter Al Sherman, who taught them: “Keep it singable, simple and sincere — and original.”

They hadn’t planned to follow in his footsteps, though. Bob planned to write the Great American Novel, while Dick wanted to write symphonies. Thank goodness they realized their talents lay elsewhere. Mouseketeer Annette Funicello made “Tall Paul” a hit, and soon the duo were the only songwriters Walt Disney had under contract. The trio seemed simpatico: Disney had them read P.L. Travers’ “Mary Poppins,” and they decided six chapters could be turned into a film; Disney had underlined the same six.

They worked on the score for 2½ years before discovering Disney didn’t have the rights to the book, and Travers wasn’t crazy about giving them to him. The men eventually won her over, and the Sherman Brothers would receive two Oscars each for their work on the film, which included the classic songs “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and Disney’s favorite, “Feed the Birds.”

That’s more memorable songs than many composers write in a lifetime. But in “The Boys,” the hits come one after another: “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”; “Winnie the Pooh”; “The Tiki Tiki Tiki Room”; Louis Prima’s scat-sung classic from the “The Jungle Book,” “I Wan’na Be Like You”; and the international brotherhood earworm “It’s a Small World.”

As Dick Van Dyke marvels, “Can you believe the output of those two gentlemen?”

These were all featured in children’s movies or theme-park attractions, but don’t mistake them for shallow ditties. “I didn’t write kiddie songs,” Bob says with absolutely no defensiveness. “I wrote songs for kiddies.”

Perhaps that’s why the Sherman Brothers’ songs are so special: Their sometimes exuberant, sometimes lovely melodies are accessible to children — and stay in your head through adulthood — but their lyrics have all the pleasure and pain of adult life and its compromises. As Bob says, and Dick agrees, of their creative process, “The idea came first. Then the music and lyrics followed.”

The songs have plenty of adult fans, of course. There’s footage of Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour covering “Hushabye Mountain” and of Ringo Starr’s popular cover of “You’re Sixteen.”

The music is simply beautiful, but there’s a bittersweet undertone to the film. It’s directed by Gregory V. Sherman and Jeff Sherman, sons of Bob and Dick. These men were cousins who lived seven blocks apart as children but never spent time together. That’s because, though their fathers made beautiful music together, they didn’t get along.

The film never makes clear just why the brothers’ relationship deteriorated to the point where their families would sit on opposite sides of the theater during premieres. But then, the brothers don’t seem too willing to explain themselves. They’re only 2½ years apart in age, but they look as if there’s a much wider gulf. Bob was scarred as a young man by World War II, in which he was part of the first squadron to enter Dachau; he says dismissively of Dick’s Army Reserve experience that he “never killed anybody.”

The cousins hoped the film would bring their fathers together. It didn’t.

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