In his own way, songwriter Howard Ashman was as important a creator of a type of musical theater as more established lyricists like Stephen Sondheim, Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and others. The biggest difference between Ashman and the others was that Ashman died at the age of 41, at the height of the AIDS crisis in 1991, after a string of wildly popular Disney animated successes, including The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast, two of which won him Oscars for Best Original Song.
The documentary Howard is an unpolished look at Ashman’s life and career that incorporates as vast wealth of never-before-scene archival footage from every stage of his short but very full life, from his early years as an actor and creating his own theater company so that he could move into directing and songwriting to his first major Off-Broadway success with the 1979 musical adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, which marked Ashman’s first outing with longtime collaborator Alan Menken. The two went on to shake up musical theater with their production of Little Shop of Horrors (Ashman also wrote the screenplay for the Frank Oz–directed film version). There were stumbling blocks as well, especially the unsuccessful 1986 Broadway musical Smile, which director, lyricist and bookwriter Ashman worked on with Marvin Hamlisch.
The depth that director Don Han (Waking Sleeping Beauty) goes into on the non-Disney phases of Ashman’s career is impressive, but naturally since this film is debuting on the Disney+ streaming service, it’s his transition to animated features at a time when Disney Animation was a creative sinkhole that is the highlight of the the movie. The film features a great number of audio clips of Ashman singing all the parts on demos for songs from all three of the animated features on which he worked, and they are an essential window into his creative process.
But Ashman was also a gay man who was diagnosed HIV+ and kept both of those pieces of information secret from most of the people he worked with, fearing being a gay man making children’s entertainment would get him fired. Thankfully, with each new person he had to share his secrets, they became less of a burden for him. His co-workers did everything they could to accommodate his declining health, including moving the music recording sessions for Beauty and the Beast to New York City because he was too weak to travel. As Menken describes it, his collaborator was re-writing songs from his hospital bed in the weeks leading up to his death.
The style of the film features visuals that are nothing but archival footage and photos, with all interviews done off camera; the exception is a period interviews with Ashman. By not parading famous faces in front of the camera, Howard feels like a much more personal and intimate exercise than a standard-issue biography documentary.
We are given nearly as many stories about Ashman being a bit of a tyrant in the workplace as we are examples of his generosity and encouragement of the artists around him. The film makes it clear he was a perfectionist with a very clear vision of every aspect of projects he worked on, even in areas that weren’t under his supervision. It’s impossible to watch this movie and not consider what wonders he would have created if he had lived longer, but the truth is, what he left us with is more than most, and Howard shows us a life lived to the fullest, whose only purpose was to entertain.
The film begins streaming Friday, August 7 on Disney+.
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