Disney+ film review: Howard
Ivan Radford | On 19, Aug 2020
Director: Don Hahn
Cast: Roger Allers, Howard Ashman, Shirley Ashman, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Roy Disney
Watch Howard online in the UK: Disney+
Alan Menken. Randy Newman. Stephen Schwartz. Lin-Manuel Miranda. Phil Collins. The list of musical talents associated with Disney is as star-studded as it comes, but one man who’s not a household name? Howard Ashman. The brilliant writer was behind the lyrics to some of your favourite Disney songs, from Be Our Guest to Under the Sea. But in 1991, he was tragically taken from the world at the young age of 40.
This Disney+ documentary seeks to re-introduce Howard to a generation of fans who have likely never heard of him, and it’s a wonderfully moving piece of biographical filmmaking. Simply titled “Howard”, it keeps its focus on the writer, and not only on his Disney years: the movie takes us back to his childhood before tracking through his young years in New York all the way to his time at the House of Mouse.
That means we get a surprising amount of time devoted to Little Shop of Horrors, which Ashman wrote the book and lyrics for – and, despite its defiantly Off-Broadway start, became a major success. That production initiated his partnership with Alan Menken, and the pair went on to work on several Disney classics, beginning with The Little Mermaid. The House of Mouse’s first fairytale in yonks, it was one that had been in the pipeline for some time, and Ashman’s musical genius, in tandem with Menken’s composition, made it the masterpiece it is – revisiting a number of tracks from the film, contributors highlight just how much story is driven through each number, propelling the characters forward.
Ashman was a firm believer that musical theatre and animation were made for each other, and so he went on to work on Aladdin – penning 16 songs that were eventually whittled down to three, following rewrites. By this point, Ashman was a key player in Disney’s team and he was brought in alongside Menken to rework Beauty and the Beast, which had stalled as a non-musical production.
All the while, though, Howard had been fighting with AIDS, which eventually led to his death. He kept his HIV-positive diagnosis a secret, fearing that it would either end his career or end his health insurance, provided by Disney. One theory proposes that Beauty and the Beast’s resonance partly lay in his understanding of being an outsider demonised by a witch-hunting mob. Whether that was conscious or not, Howard’s had a powerful knack for crafting witty, insightful, universal lyrics that were accessible to all ages.
Director Don Hahn, who is a Disney veteran, assembles all this with evident warmth and a superb attention to detail. Avoiding talking heads to keep the focus on clips we know and archive footage we don’t, there’s a personal intimacy that complements, rather than competes with, the film’s comprehensive historical scope.
And so it is that we get to observe Ashman at work, enjoying the orchestral recording of Beauty and the Beast’s songs while giving impressively specific directions to each performer – which word to emphasis and how dramatically to deliver each verse. We hear how he worked even from his hospital bed, how his colleagues were bemused but happy to relocate their workshop to be near him during his final years. That devotion and dedication is the throughline that weaves all the parts of the film together, creating a vivid tapestry and memorable portrait of a guy who was willing to stand up to Jeffrey Katzenberg over whether to remove Part of Your World from The Little Mermaid. The fact that Howard was right says it all. This film leaves you grateful for Ashman’s contributions to formative family cinema – and poignantly wondering what he might have gone on to achieve were he alive today.
Howard is available on Disney+, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription.