Five Lyrical Documentaries about Composers

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Five Lyrical Documentaries about Composers

How did some of your favorite pop, movie and Broadway tunes come to be? From the creation of classic Disney songs to arguably the most memorably scored movie moment of all time—the shower scene in Psycho—these five documentaries about great composers and lyricists reveal the personality and process that helped place these tunes in the pop culture firmament.

1. Howard (2018)


Now on Disney+, this documentary from Beauty and the Beast producer Don Hahn pays tribute to the late Howard Ashman, the Oscar-winning lyricist of Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and Little Shop of Horrors. Working with composer Alan Menken, Ashman’s impressive list of songs include “Be Our Guest” and “Under the Sea.”

The documentary features fabulous footage of Beauty and the Beast cast Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach recording the soundtrack.

You can see more of Ashman’s pivotal contribution to Disney’s ’90s comeback in Waking Sleeping Beauty, also on Disney+.

2. The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story (2009)


Some of the most beloved Disney tunes—including “The Bare Necessities” from the original Jungle Book and “Chim Chim Cher-ee” from Mary Poppins—were written by the legendary team of brothers Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman, who wrote more motion-picture musical song scores than any other songwriting team in film history.

This documentary—co-directed by Richard’s son Gregory and Robert’s son Jeff—reveals that the brothers’ relationship was hardly as genial as it appeared. Apart from working together, they never spent any time together, despite living a few blocks from each other.

Bob was the older brother who’d been injured in World War II and used a cane. (He was portrayed by B.J. Novak in Saving Mr. Banks, while Jason Schwartzman played the younger, more optimistic Dick).

“Bob was the moody one,” as Roy Disney Jr., recalls in the film. “Bob was a little more ‘Feed the Birds’ and Dick is a little more ‘Supercalifragilistic.’”

After Mary Poppins, for which they shared two Oscars, they became Disney’s in-house musical writing team, penning songs for Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Chitty Chitty Bang-Bang, The Aristocats and many more. Bob passed away in 2012; Dick is still with us at age 92.

3. Six by Sondheim (2013)


Tony winner Sondheim made his stunning Broadway debut at age 27 as the lyricist for West Side Story in 1957.

“I sort of osmosed myself into the Hammerstein household, and Dorothy and Oscar Hammerstein became surrogate parents for 19 years,” Sondheim recalls in this documentary made for HBO. “That’s essentially how I became a songwriter—because I wanted to do what Oscar did.”

Sondheim’s Broadway hits include Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music. After West Side Story, he became both composer as well as lyricist, for which he says he was—and still is—considered an “upstart.”

The film focuses on the creation of six of his most famous songs, including “I’m Still Here” and “Send in the Clowns.” Some are presented via archival footage, such as Dean Jones singing “Being Alive” for 1983’s Company, and some via newly filmed segments featuring Darren Criss, America Ferrara and Audra McDonald. Perhaps most notably, Pulp lead singer Jarvis Cocker croons “I’m Still Here” in a nightclub scene directed by Todd Haynes.

4. Carole King: Natural Woman (2016)


One of the most successful songwriters of all time, Carole King recalls in this down-to-earth doc made for PBS’s American Masters, “I didn’t ever want to be a singer. I didn’t want to be famous. I liked the idea of writing songs, so I would be recognized and respected by the people who sang them.”

King began by writing hits for other artists, working with then-husband lyricist Gerry Gofffin. These hits included “Natural Woman” (immortalized by Aretha Franklin), “One Fine Day,” “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “Up on the Roof,” and “The Loco-Motion.”

After splitting with Goffin and moving to California, she became part of LA’s Wonderland music scene, befriending and working with James Taylor and Joni Mitchell.

Her debut singing her own songs—1971’s Tapestry—featured pop classics “You’ve Got a Friend,” “So Far Away” and “It’s Too Late,” and won four Grammys, including Album of the Year.

King admits that writing songs has always been easy for her. Her one-time lyricist partner Toni Stern recalls King could write a song in an hour, “including the arrangements.”

Her life became a Broadway show with the jukebox musical Beautiful in 2013.

5. Music for the Movies: Bernard Herrmann (1992)


Would Alfred Hitchcock’s movies North by Northwest and Psycho be as memorable without Bernard Herrmann’s menacing scores? It’s doubtful. Especially considering that his most famous sequence, the shower scene in Psycho, was originally supposed to have no music. Ignoring Hitchcock’s orders, Herrmann went ahead and wrote the famous, shrieking score for the shocking murder. Luckily, Hitchcock used it.

Hitchcock and Herrmann eventually parted ways during the making of 1966’s Torn Curtain. Herrmann composed music for a lengthy murder scene, but Hitchcock chose not to use it and went with a different composer. (The film, which is on YouTube, shows how much more suspenseful the scene would have been with Herrmann’s music.)

Herrmann went on to score films for other directors, including Taxi Driver for Martin Scorsese: “I wanted to make something called New York Gothic,” says Scorsese. “The only man who could do the score is Benny Herrmann.” The jazzy, neo-noir score “wasn’t what I expected, but it supplied the psychological basis throughout.”

“His music is like a vortex,” adds Scorsese. “It goes deeper and deeper and deeper. It reminds me of some of Wagner. It has a feeling that it never comes to completion, then it starts all over again. It affects you emotionally and psychologically. His stuff is universal.”

His score for 1962’s Cape Fear was used again in Scorsese’s 1991 remake. In this one-hour documentary Elmer Bernstein plays out the score in a few key notes on the piano: “That’s very typical Herrmann. Now, you never forget that. It impresses itself on your mind.”

Sharon Knolle is a film noir buff, dog lover and founder of You can follow her on Twitter.