For six decades, Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman made beautiful music together.
A veritable George and Ira Gershwin at the Walt Disney Studios in the 1960s, the composing brothers were responsible for writing such popular songs as “Let’s Get Together” from “The Parent Trap” as well as Disneyland attraction ditties such as the song everyone loves to hate, “It’s a Small World.”
They hit their stride with their Oscar-winning score of 1964’s “Mary Poppins,” which features numerous standards including the Academy Award-winning best song, “Chim-Chim-Cher-ee,” as well as “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Feed the Birds.” They also supplied the majority of the tunes to 1967’s “The Jungle Book” and composed music for such non-Disney films as 1968’s “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and 1973’s “Charlotte’s Web.”
But real life was far less harmonious. The documentary, “The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story,” which opens today explores their rather discordant personal relationship.
Though they grew up within blocks of each other, “The Boys’ ” filmmakers -- Richard’s son, Emmy Award-winning producer and writer Gregory V. Sherman, and Robert’s son, writer, producer, director, composer Jeffrey C. Sherman -- never knew each other. A rift, which began some 40 years ago and is alluded to in the documentary, caused the families to lead totally separate lives.
The cousins connected with each other in 2002 at the London stage premiere of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” and the idea for the documentary was born. The cousins hoped the documentary would help start a dialogue between their fathers -- the kinetic Richard, 80, still lives in Los Angeles and continues composing -- the quiet, more introspective Robert, 83, lives in London, where he paints and writes.
“A lot of what kept them together -- it was all about the work,” says Gregory Sherman.
“There isn’t a lot of work now. It would be nice if they would be able to connect as brothers. We were hoping that it would happen.”
But when the brothers “reunited” a few years back at the New York opening of the stage version of “Mary Poppins,” the Sherman siblings barely talked to each other.
“We had two goals,” says Gregory Sherman. “One was to associate our dads with the music. Very few people outside of the motion picture academy or Disney fanatics know who they are, though their music is recognized. I think we achieve that. And our second was to get them to bridge that gap now.”
And both the Sherman cousins hope that “The Boys” will become a narrative feature. Ben Stiller, one of the producers of “The Boys,” is interested in playing Robert and having Robert Downey Jr. play Richard.
His uncle, says Jeff Sherman, “is basically an open book. Dick will talk about anything openly, and my dad, on the other hand, is more old school. You don’t air your dirty linen -- you don’t do that sort of thing. You will notice in the movie he doesn’t really put Dick down except in a funny way. Dick has deeper problems than was expressed in the film.”
His father, says Gregory Sherman, is “kind of the wounded party here. It’s my uncle who moved away and didn’t want a connection anymore. My dad is kind of hurt by that. I think there was a revelation to him seeing this film. He really appreciated the craftsmanship that went into telling two balanced stories. But he learned a lot of his brother’s view of him. When we had those sound bites where Bob says ‘I really didn’t know him well’ and my dad said ‘I adored him.’ -- he didn’t think there was any distinction about how he felt about Bob and how Bob felt about him. It was shocking for him a little bit.”
They made it work
If Richard Sherman is upset, he certainly doesn’t let on. “We got along just fine when we were working on shows,” he says of his brother. “We worked out a way of making it happen, and it was very smooth. It’s basically a situation where the brothers did live separate lives, but we did have a united warm friendship in our work and our relationship with our producers like Walt. We knew we were doing a great job together. We were two separate people. Bob is kind of monosyllabic, and I talk all over the place.”
Would the two ever compose again?
“You never know,” says Richard Sherman. “Only a fool would say what is happening tomorrow. Anything could happen.”