Updated: Jul 13, 2021
Howard Ashman was a playwright and lyricist, best known for helping to turn around Walt Disney Studios animation with The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. He was an intelligent man, very passionate when it came to his work. Though he wasn’t a musician, he had a great head for music and knew exactly what his songs needed to sound like. The celebratory documentary Howard (streaming on Disney+) follows his life from his childhood in Baltimore until his death from AIDS at the age of 40. It doesn’t give a ton of insight into his personal life, mainly just highlighting things that are necessary to discuss his career. But, as a look at his creativity, it is a worthwhile tribute to a man whose work continues to live on and have a tremendous impact on so many.
Howard uses plenty of photos and archival footage of Ashman. Its story is told using audio from his friends/family/colleagues as well as Ashman himself. The fact that the people talking aren’t shown onscreen allows the movie to always keep its focus on Ashman. Even when they are giving personal anecdotes, what we are seeing makes them more about Ashman’s role in those stories.
His life is relayed chronologically, so it takes a while to get to his time at Disney. That is where the behind the scenes footage becomes more prevalent. We see him working with songwriting partner Alan Menken on these now familiar lyrics, hear him sing some of the songs himself and watch him directing the actors to get things just right. I’m not really a fanboy for any of his movies (though I did watch Aladdin many, many times when I was a kid); still, seeing these incredibly popular productions going from concept to screen through this one man is valuable and quite enlightening.
Something always present in biographies about deceased artists are theories of how they used their personal experiences in their work; that their most beloved stuff was stimulated by things going on in their lives. Ashman was a gay man afraid that his sexuality and his disease (which he was diagnosed with during the production of The Little Mermaid) could cause family friendly Disney to get rid of him. His friends posit that Beauty and the Beast is a metaphor for how he felt oppressed as a gay man (specifically mentioning “The Mob Song”) or that when Jafar sings about destroying Aladdin it was Ashman bemoaning what AIDS was doing to his body. It is important to note that Howard’s sister completely denies that he used his life in creating his work. Howard generally seems to suggest that a lot of his inspiration came from movies/plays he had liked as a child. Yet you can see how people got the idea that his work was generated by his personal issues. Regardless, it is certainly an intriguing way to recontextualize his lyrics.
Howard comes off as a love letter from Disney to a man who was instrumental in returning the studio to glory in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. It leans about 75/25 in favor of Howard Ashman the writer/director over Howard Ashman the person, glossing over potential flaws to focus on his brilliance as an artist. However, it is enjoyable when digging into his body of work and showing how he was able to produce such an impressive portfolio. For those who don’t know much about the making of those movies (or the plays he directed), there is a lot of good information here, delivered in a fast-paced, entertaining way. For those who do, it will probably be fun to revisit his story, told by those who knew him best.
3¼ out of 5
Written and Directed by Don Hahn