You might not know it, but you’re probably a fan of Howard Ashman’s work. He penned some of the most memorable songs in film history as the lyricist on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. He was a herculean talent who died of AIDS at age 40 at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Don Hahn’s film Howard attempts to shed some light on the unknown man whose works are household names. It’s an earnest attempt to tell the story of a fascinating man, but it’s told with none of the magic that made Ashman’s works immortal. It feels more like an essay than a celebration, but for those looking to learn more about the words behind some of the most enduring film characters, this will do.
Howard is directed by Don Hahn, a longtime Disney producer and the director of several TV documentaries, and that shows. Both his love for Disney, and his adherence to a documentary form that feels more at home on television than the big screen. The film, particularly it’s first half, is very static, composed primarily of photos and archival interviews and other inert pieces of media. The film occasionally comes to life, highlighting Ashman’s words on the screen as the music plays, and it’s easy to imagine how a more kinetic version of this film could have worked.
The archival material from Ashman’s early career in off Broadway theatre capture an iconic time both in the arts and in the gay community. The landscape of the Broadway musical was changing, with Ashman himself, contributing to the change, penning boundary pushing musicals like God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, and Little Shop of Horrors. At the same time, the world was learning of a new disease people referred to as ‘gay cancer’ – what would eventually be known as AIDS.
The back half of Howard deals with his time at Disney and plays much like a more focused sister piece to the 2009 documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, which Hahn produced. Ashman was one of the key talents responsible for the Disney renaissance. It’s incredible to see film we now know to be classics struggle to get made. Here we get a real appreciation for just how well Howard Ashman could see how these films were meant to come together. In one particularly eyebrow raising moment, Disney executives suggest that “Part of Your World” be cut from The Little Mermaid, sparking outrage from Ashman, who understood the number as the film’s emotional hinge.
After being diagnosed with AIDS, Howard’s career turns into a race against time. Ashman did most of his work on Beauty and the Beast from his home in New York, with the animators flying their storyboards across the country to work with him, and the final songs for Aladdin were written from Saint Vincent’s hospital before he died in March of 1991, having won two academy awards and having shaped the childhoods of a generation.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
Howard is very much a case of subject over style. Howard Ashman’s significance on the world of music and animation is incalculable and it’s hard not to get mad that he didn’t have more time to create more work. Hahn’s documentary is a serviceable overview of the man’s life, but it has little life of its own. It’s a heartfelt tribute, but a perfunctory one. It’s the kind of documentary you might expect to find on cable in the mid afternoon, or auto-playing after the credits of some Netflix doc. If you’d like to see it before then, Howard is having its world premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.