(2009) directors Gregory V. Sherman, Jeff Sherman
More that 20 years ago, a friend turned me on to a 3 CD collection of Disney music, which I took to in a big way. It featured songs from the earliest films through to the then present, but also contained theme songs from live action films, television shows, and even theme park rides. I’d say that about 75% of it was brilliant stuff. And oddly, of that 75% that I was really into, I discovered that the songs were written by a team named “Sherman/Sherman”. At the time, I didn’t know that these two were brothers, but that they wrote a good deal of the best of the Disney music, for animated films like The Jungle Book (1967), mixed live-action/animation films like Mary Poppins (1964), and even Disney theme “rides” like In the Tiki Tiki Tiki Room.
Who were these amazing song-smiths? Brothers Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman.
When I saw that this documentary was coming out, I was probably of a small minority of people who were kind of excited about it. I really knew little of the brothers who wrote songs from “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, and “Winnie the Pooh”. It turns out that the story between this writing team is more interesting than one might expect.
For all of being siblings only 2 1/2 years apart, the two are as different as night and day. And for all of their success, they are not at all close. The film is actually directed by two of their sons, Gregory V. Sherman and Jeff Sherman, who along with others of their children, have tried to find ways to bring them together.
Bob, the elder of the two, is the lyricist, the darker of the two, who served in WWII at the age of 17 and saw some terrible things. Richard, the younger and more buoyant, is the music writer. They both earned their musical ear from their father, who had also some success as a songwriter before the war.
The film is one of a number of Disney documentaries that seem to further the story of the studio, the legend of Walt Disney, and capture a larger story behind the movies, the theme parks, the world of Walt. In this sense, the film only really deals with the strange estrangement of the brothers, not delving into any real issues with Walt of the studio. And this is certainly the case for the Sherman brothers, who seem to have been personal favorites of Walt’s from the time they earned their first hit for The Parent Trap (1961). And the two brothers refer to Disney as a wonderful, imaginative paternal figure for whom they both have great respect and admiration.
Interestingly, the Shermans had big successes outside of the studio, such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and interestingly to me, Snoopy Come Home (1972). So many of their songs are so hummable and catchy, you have to really strive to get them out of your head. They also wrote It’s a Small World After All.
I don’t know if you could compare them to the great American songwriters like the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and the others who are considered as part of the Great American Songbook. Certainly, their music comes at the close of that classic period, and certainly, some of their songs are probably either more inane or kitschy, compared to the classics of the middle 20th century. But they certainly are the best musical writing team to have worked at the Disney Studios and they have a well-earned legacy.
There is a sadness to their lives, their estrangement, a melancholy beneath the story. It makes for an interesting film, for me because I was already interested in them and their music. But it could be an eye-opener for a number of fans of the Disney classics, a pair who had some fame in their day (they won Oscars for Mary Poppins for instance). But how many have heard of them today?