REVIEW – ‘Howard’ is a powerful and moving tribute to a true artistic genius

By the mid-1980s, Walt Disney Feature Animation was on its last legs. After the catastrophic box office failure of 1985’s ambitious disaster The Black Cauldron, many within the Disney studio feared the once-illustrious animation department was on the verge of being shut down. It would take the herculean efforts of a dream team of collaborators to resurrect Disney animation and it would be spearheaded by a man whose influence was compared to Walt Disney himself.

Arriving almost three decades after songwriter Howard Ashman’s tragic premature death, Howard is a powerful and moving tribute to a true artistic genius whose lyrical brilliance helped launch an unprecedented renaissance that gave birth to a new age of Disney animation. An intimate portrait of its titular subject, Howard pays fitting homage to the lyricist’s immense talent without ever deifying a man whose relentless quest for perfection could ruffle more than a few feathers.

Utilising extensive archival footage and audio interviews with Ashman’s family (including his partner of seven years Bill Lauch), close friends, and colleagues, the documentary is lovingly crafted by Don Hahn, the producer of Ashman’s final full project Beauty and the Beast, and scored by Ashman’s frequent songwriting collaborator Alan Menken. It’s a bittersweet and long overdue film that deftly captures the magic of a wildly talented man cruelly taken at the peak of his career.

For a documentary debuting exclusively on Disney+, you’d be remiss to think this is merely an exploration of Ashman’s time at the House of Mouse. And, given Disney’s steadfast focus on family-friendly entertainment, you may also be concerned the film would shy away from Ashman’s sexuality. Thankfully, Hahn is determined to capture a detailed snapshot of his dear friend’s entire life, with the film reaching almost the hour mark before Disney courts the lyricist to join the studio.

Courtesy of narration from Ashman’s mother Shirley and sister Sarah, we’re regaled with stories of a young lad with a flair for theatrics who loved to entertain his family and friends with shows he created entirely from his treasured toys. As a young boy who hated sports, Ashman joined a local children’s theatre group and was already writing original musicals by the time he was a teenager.

From here, Hahn outlines Ashman’s journey from his hometown of Indiana to New York City, where he co-founds the WPA Theatre (which is described as a “theatrical monastery”), and, together with Menken, creates two hugely successful Off-Broadway productions in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and Little Shop of Horrors. After the disastrous 1986 Broadway flop Smile, which Ashman co-write with EGOT winner Marvin Hamlisch, a dejected Ashman heads to California after receiving an offer from Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, who believes Ashman may be the man to help save Disney’s lagging animation division.

Assigned to the languishing production of The Little Mermaid, Ashman became heavily involved in the writing and development of the film. While addressing the production crew in one archival clip, Ashman wisely rationalised, “The last great place to do Broadway musicals is animation.” His work with Menken revitalised the production and pushed Disney to return to the animated musicals of their past, which inherently followed the Broadway musical formula with songs forming a part of the film’s overall narrative.

But it’s during the production of The Little Mermaid that Howard receives his HIV-positive diagnosis, which was essentially a death sentence in the late 1980s. In an age of fear and paranoia over the disease, Ashman hid the news from everyone at Disney for years, including Menken, who wasn’t informed until a few days after the pair had won an Oscar for the song “Under the Sea” in March 1990.

With his health beginning to fade, Disney would move heaven and earth to facilitate the production of their next animated feature Beauty and the Beast, with songwriting and recording sessions taking place in New York to allow an ailing Ashman to avoid the need to travel back and forth to California. In an act of defiance, Ashman worked until his final days, with Menken writing songs for both Beauty and the Beast and the in-development Aladdin from Ashman’s hospital bed. He would not live to see the completed film, with HIV claiming his life at just the age of 40.

The tragic latter stages of Howard are punctuated by the inescapable juxtaposition of Ashman leading Disney’s rebirth while his own days were numbered. Hahn speculates it was Ashman’s work with Disney that truly kept him alive in his final years, with the lyricist determined to leave behind a legacy through Disney animation that would live on long after he was gone. Despite his health deteriorating by the day (photographs startingly display Ashman’s rapid aging and weight loss as the disease savagely took hold), his commitment to his work never once faltered.

But his diagnosis also turned the fastidious songwriter to become increasingly impatient with his collaborators, with Menken recalling a time when Ashman smashed a faulty Walkman Pro against the wall when the microphone stopped working. Katzenberg recalls the moment he suggested cutting “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid, which prompted Ashman to threaten, “Over my dead body. I’ll strangle you.” After one particularly difficult Beauty and the Beast production meeting, several animators cheekily drew Ashman literally breathing fire across the table. It’s moments like these where Hahn refuses to exalt Ashman and display him for the devilish diva he could sometimes be.

With unprecedented access to the Disney vaults and Ashman’s records at the Library of Congress, Hahn utilises a treasure trove of archival footage and audio to craft his documentary. The result is clearly a cathartic experience for the director, whose admiration for Ashman flows heavily throughout. Hahn has stated he wanted Ashman to “tell his own story in his own words,” with Howard filled with audio and visual clips of the lyricist to almost eulogise himself. By capturing the thoughts and recollections of those closest to Ashman, the documentary is blessed with a level of intimacy that’s both inspiring and heartbreaking.

Howard offers dozens of magical behind-the-scenes moments that will undoubtedly delight Disney enthusiasts, particularly recording sessions featuring Ashman coaching Jodi Benson through “Part of Your World” and the legendary Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach performing “Be Our Guest” with a full orchestra. We’re also shown rarely seen rough-cut animation sequences, unused songs (Ashman penned a deleted track for Aladdin called “Humiliate the Boy,” which is considered an allegory for society’s treatment of homosexuals), and even preliminary recordings of Ashman singing his own workshopped lyrics.

Dotted along the way are curious tidbits throughout Ashman’s life that ironically foreshadowed his eventual connection with the Disney studio. For his Master’s Thesis in college, he wrote the book and lyrics for a musical based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, which would also form the inspiration for Disney’s 2013 phenomenon Frozen. While working for a publishing group in the 1970s, Ashman was an editor of The Mickey Mouse Club Scrapbook. And, in a curious piece of irony, Smile featured a musical number where the lead character Doria (played Benson, the future voice of Ariel) dreams of one day going to Disneyland. It was almost predestined the lyricist would land on Mickey’s doorstep.

But the true success of Howard is Hahn’s careful focus on Ashman’s sexuality, with the director exploring his early difficult relationship with creative partner Stuart White (who would also tragically die of AIDS) and Bill Lauch, who remained by Ashman’s side until the very end. It’s refreshing to see a frank and open discussion of homosexuality appear on a platform like Disney+. Hahn never shies away from who Ashman was, even going so far as to include a discussion over whether “The Mob Song” from Beauty and the Beast was a metaphor for society’s treatment of HIV-positive members of the homosexual community.

There will likely be conjecture over Hahn’s decision to only utilise the audio of his interview subjects and leave the visuals to be constructed entirely from archival footage. It robs the documentary of the chance to see the expressions of Ashman’s family and collaborators as they remember the beloved lyricist. However, in certain moments, you can feel their every emotion seep through their words, particularly as they devastatingly recall their final goodbyes to Ashman in his last days.

At a brisk 92 minutes long, Howard really only scratches the surface on the life of a man who created some of the most cherished musical moments in cinema history. It’s a story crying out for a more substantial biopic, which Disney would be wise to greenlight in the future. Ashman genuinely helped save Disney animation and Hahn’s documentary is a fitting tribute to an unassuming man whose gift for song lyrics lives on long after his passing. For those unfamiliar with Ashman’s work, Howard finally gives the songwriter the credit he’s long deserved.

As a celebration of Ashman’s contributions to both stage and screen, Howard is a testament to the staggering talent of one of the greatest songwriters of our time. But, conversely, it also stands as a stark reminder of the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic and how Ashman’s premature death robbed the world of the beautiful music he still had to offer. Ashman’s lyrics will continue to live for generations to come, but now there’s also a permanent eulogy that rightly shines a light on the brilliant man “who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul.”

Distributor: Disney+
Director: Don Hahn
Producers: Lori Korngiebel, Don Hahn
Music: Alan Menken
Editing: Stephen Yao
Running Time: 92 minutes
Release Date: 7th August 2020 (Australia)