Howard Ashman may not be a name you’ve ever heard, but you’re bound to have heard his music.
Despite passing away nearly 30 years ago Ashman’s legacy is still felt at Disney. There’s a bittersweet feel to the film dedicated to the lyricist behind The Little Mermaid’s soundtrack as well as Beauty and the Beast and the original idea for Aladdin as well as The Little Shop of Horrors.
With Ashman’s work still going strong, from the live-action Beauty and the Beast in 2017 to the Aladdin Broadway musical using his original music alongside Tim Rice’s, it’s not surprising that director Don Hahn decided to give fans a look behind the curtain with his documentary simply titled Howard.
The film, a sort of gentle love letter to the lyricist, doesn’t shy away from Howard’s struggles, or his temper (Alan Menken, his music partner, talks about him smashing a cassette recorder in frustration).
Premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival the film, anow coming to Disney+, was received well by fans of Disney and those more broadly interested in the filmmaking process, and part of the reason Howard works so well is it doesn’t just profile the lyricist but also gives you an unflinching look at Disney itself with the former chief execs, studio honchos, and animators all honestly talking about what it was like working with him.
Hahn delves into the Disney archive showing fascinating clips of Ashman; he’s seen encouraging Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach as they sing Be Our Guest, explaining to Paige O’Hara how he wants her sing as Belle, as well as meeting the animators and teaching them how to use music as part of the narrative. Roy Disney once said Ashman was the Walt Disney of his time and it’s easy to see why.
While Ashman’s work would be worthy of film by itself, his personal life is worthy of the spotlight too. The lyricist was told he had AIDS when working on Beauty and the Beast but kept it a secret from his friends and colleagues, drawing on every last bit of energy he had to see the film finished. Ashman’s partner Bill Lauch is also heard in the film giving a heartbreaking take on seeing Howard fight and throw himself into his work.
What’s so striking about Howard is it doesn’t rush to the Disney days, it takes its time showing Ashman’s early life, his charisma as he starts out his career, his early successes, so much so you feel every high and low with him, from the big breaks to the bad reviews.
His frustration and directness could come across as cold or blunt but instead, through the lens of his early days, it’s styled as genius and resilience in the face of an unspeakable disease.
For Disney fans, the last portion of the film may hold the most interest as the team behind The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast explain the powerful impact Ashman had, from basing Ursula on drag queen Divine, to Sebastian being Jamaican – there’s even the debate over whether the Beast’s Mob Song is a metaphor for AIDs, though Peter Schneider, the former president of Walt Disney Feature Animation, does say Ashman was “not political, he was human”.
Howard shows us the human side of the man – and the human side to Disney. Speaking to RadioTimes.com, Hahn said there’s sometimes the view that the Disney magic just happens effortlessly that it’s all glitter and sparkles, but Howard shows the blood, sweat and tears that went into making what are (arguably) the best Disney films ever – with the Oscars to prove it.
Some of the most touching moments come near the end as Ashman gets frustrated with his and Menken’s work before they attend the Oscars. The shadow of what he has to share with his music partner is evident. Menken reveals how he felt it was him, that he was about to be told he didn’t want to work together anymore. A few days later, when he visited Ashman in his home in New York, he was given the truth: “He told me about being sick – HIV positive.”
They worked together until the end, Ashman determined to get the film perfect, but his story doesn’t have a happy ending – he died before he could see the finished film, win another Oscar for the title song and hear the praise heaped on Beauty and the Beast.
The 1991 film pays tribute to Ashman with “To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul we will be forever grateful.”
Now Howard pays another fitting tribute to the man whose legacy continues at Disney all these years later, but you can’t help but wonder what else Ashman could have produced if he wasn’t taken so young.