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Howard (2020)

| August 7, 2020

There is an inscription at Howard Ashman’s grave in Baltimore:
“Oh that he would have one more song to sing, one more song . . .”

That melancholy statement could easily serve as a narrative through line in the new Disney+ documentary Howard which traces Ashman’s life and legacy from his childhood in Baltimore to his career in musical theater to his immortality in turning The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin into musical extravaganzas before his early death from AIDS at age 39.

Howard is a companion piece to the 2013 documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty about the revitalization of Disney animation in the late 80s and early 90s which had been in a state of artless mediocrity since Walt Disney’s death in 1966.  That film, also directed and narrated by producer and animator Don Hahn, devoted some time to the emotional story about how Ashman’s background in musical theater helped elevate The Little Mermaid into something far greater than it had any reason to be.  You felt, in that film, that Ashman’s story was begging to be told.  The rise and fall of a tireless musical genius injecting Disney’s animated product with a much-needed jolt of energy is an irresistible story

The documentary Howard is part tribute and part celebration told in off-camera narration by those who knew him and those who worked with him.  You quickly come to envy Howard Ashman’s creative overload, his ability to turn something bland into something full of color and magic.  One of the points made by the film is Ashman’s insatiable appetite to create and to express himself even from an early age.

Born and raised in Baltimore, his sister describes how he would turn ordinary objects into a fantasy land of wonder, making a universe out a bedspreads and tissue paper. He would create costumes for his plastic cowboys and Indians and adjust the lamp so that the light would dance on his bedroom walls.  Some creative spark was inside of him from the very beginning.

Howard was well-educated, studying theater at Boston University before transferring to Goddard College where he received a BA in theater.  For his Master’s thesis, he wrote the lyrics for a children’s musical based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.”  He was a man of many talents but it wasn’t until he moved to New York with his then-boyfriend and started a theater in a skid row section of New York City above a donut shop that he discovered that he had a true talent for lyrics and also a talent for injecting a musical flare into something that had not real business being a musical.  This would explain how he managed to recombobulate Little Shop of Horrors, the strange story about a wimp who has his life altered when he falls under the spell of a man-eating plant into something lively and fun.  He and Alan Menkin took this bizarre material and give it a 50s sensability that was described as “The dark side of Grease.”

His next project probably seemed just as promising, transforming the cult hit Smile – a satire on the world of professional beauty pageants – into a musical, partnering with Marvin Hamlish.  It died on the stage almost from the moment that it premiered.  Luckily for Howard, it was just at that moment that Jeffrey Katzenberg, the newly installed CEO of The Walt Disney Company, called and asked he and Alan Menkin to come to California and be part of the revitalization of Disney animation (which you know better as The Disney Renaissance).

This is where Ashman’s longest lasting legacy was born and we can see through archival footage why he was invaluable to the bringing life back to Disney’s sputtering animated features.  Behind the scenes, we see him coaching Jodi Benson (Ariel) and later Paige O’Hara (Belle) on inflections and phrasing to get the notes to land just right.  We see why Howard Ashman was so good – he knew exactly what he wanted and he worked and worked and worked until he got it.  If this documentary reveals anything, it is that he was a tireless visionary and that hard work is why The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin are so regarded today.

The back half of the movie is, of course, devoted to Ashman’s struggles to keep working after being diagnosed with AIDS.  Bill Lauch, his partner for the last seven years of his life, tenderly describes the agony of trying to keep working while keeping his condition quiet and finish building the house in New York that they both knew they would never get to share.

Slowly but surely, of course, he had to reveal his condition to his work mates at a moment when the stigma of AIDS (and of being gay) was a scarlet letter.  One of the most unexpected parallels in the film is when Alan Menkin tries to deal with the claim that some of the elements of Beauty and the Beast came from Howard’s struggle to survive in a world that would have been fit to see him as a monster both from his condition and for his sexual orientation.  The mob scene in particular draws a curious parallel.  

One of the great things about Howard is the way in which it visualizes the lyrics to the songs so that the audience can interpret whether or not they are biographical.  This is particularly effective when Ashman wrote “Part of Your World” and later the title song for Beauty and the Beast.

Naturally, because Howard Ashman’s star burned out too quickly, there is a pall of melancholy that hangs over it.  Yes, it is sad that such a brilliant creative talent never got to rise to even greater heights (imagine what he might have contributed to The Lion King or Pocahontas or Mulan).  You lament that the world was robbed a great creative mind and you wonder that he still had one more song to sing.  One more song . . .

Now Streaming on Disney+

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2020) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized