If you are the sort of person who thinks all documentaries are dry and boring, I have good news for you. “Howard,” the Don Hahn documentary film about Disney Legend Howard Ashman, is anything but. It’s compelling, insightful, emotional, and dare I say it? A tear-jerker. It debuts on the Disney+ streaming service this Friday.
Most Disney film fans will recognize Ashman’s name as the lyricist who, along with composer Alan Menken, helped reinvent the Disney animated musical movie with the Oscar-winning “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Ashman died of AIDS at the age of 40 in 1991.
With this documentary, Hahn, who worked with Ashman on “Beauty and the Beast,” has painted a vivid portrait of this innovator of contemporary musical theater and film. But even though this is a Disney production, it is far from a glossy, sugar-coated biography.
“Howard” relies heavily on never-before-seen footage and film clips narrated by old interviews with Ashman himself, as well as conversations with family members, friends and colleagues. Their recollections heard over black-and-white photos and snippets of grainy personal film tell this master storyteller’s story in an understated but powerful way.
Ashman was born in Baltimore, in 1950, and the documentary sets the stage with one of many anecdotes supplied by Ashman’s younger sister Sarah. She recalls an older brother who created a fantasy land in his room to entertain her while their parents were otherwise engaged. The love of creating new worlds carried over into Ashman’s adolescence so that by the time he was 14 he was turning everything into a musical, even, as he himself notes, his laundry list.
College-bound – he and his sister were the first to go in their family – Ashman headed to Boston University, then Vermont’s Goddard College, and finally Indiana University for graduate school. Along the way Ashman met and fell in love with Stuart White, who was also interested in theater and accompanied Ashman when he moved to New York.
Ashman found New York both “glamorous and threatening,” and tried his hand at several jobs, including a stint in the publishing world that led him to his first professional brush with Disney – as editor of the Mickey Mouse Club Scrapbook. Ashman eventually returned to his first love, the theater, and worked with a small company called the WPA Theatre. He met composer Alan Menken through a mutual friend in the late ‘70s and the two embarked on a long collaboration that changed the lives of both men.
“It was pure creative energy when we were working together,” Menken recalls in a voiceover. “It was No Holds Barred.”
By 1979, the two had successfully adapted the Kurt Vonnegut book, “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” for the musical theater, and Ashman discovered, “I liked writing lyrics better than anything in the world!”
Their next project – a musical adaptation of the Roger Corman horror parody, “Little Shop of Horrors” – met with even greater success. The stage version won Ashman the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lyrics. A few years later, the musical was turned into a film starring Rick Moranis (Disney’s Honey I Shrunk the Kid, Ghostbusters).
After a misstep with the ill-fated musical Smile (music composed by Marvin Hamlisch), Ashman was invited to California by Disney Studios then-chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg. (Side note: working on Smile introduced Ashman to a young Jodi Benson, who went on to become the distinctive voice of Ariel, the Little Mermaid.)
Ashman was soon brought onto the team that was working on a new musical, based on the old Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Little Mermaid.” Ashman asked Menken to join him, and the two created the memorable tunes for the film that led Disney Animation’s “renaissance.”
Ashman and Menken subsequently worked together on Disney’s Oscar-winning Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, both of which were released after Ashman’s death.
Though Hahn’s admiration for his subject is obvious throughout the film, he does not shrink from showing Ashman’s flaws. A perfectionist who often could provoke, Ashman was nearly fired from several projects. When his illness forced him to have the studio transport Disney’s California-based animation team to his home in New York, it was easy for people to believe the cover story that success had gone to the “feisty” Ashman’s head.
The film also does not gloss over Ashman’s decline and eventual submission to AIDS. Afraid of losing Disney’s support and possibly his work, Ashman and his partner Bill Lauch worked to keep his illness hidden for as long as possible. But as his stamina waned, Ashman was obliged to confide his condition to others, starting with his longtime collaborator Menken, whose voice breaks with emotion as he recounts the episode.
These poignant moments are tempered with goosebumps-inducing footage of studio rehearsals and recordings of “Beauty and the Beast,” featuring Angela Lansbury and the late Jerry Orbach. Describing the sessions as “musical theater heaven” and “like recording a Broadway cast album,” the interviewees and Ashman clearly knew they were making movie magic.
As we learn about Ashman’s final days – his sight and voice gone, his weight down to 80 pounds – and we hear how, even when confined to a hospital bed, he wrote several of the songs of “Aladdin,” Hahn leads us to realize that this was a talent gone too soon. And we are left contemplating the closing words of Menken and others: “What we got was the tip of the iceberg… His gift was so strong and his light was so bright… He didn’t get to live to see it, but his work lives on…”
“Howard”, which had its world premiere in 2018 at the TriBeCa Film Festival in New York City, runs 92 minutes and will begin streaming on Disney+ on Friday, August 7.