Fans of Disney as well as those interested in American history will be fascinated by writer/director/producer Don Hahn’s documentary Howard, now streaming on Disney+. They will also experience a host of emotions spanning from heartbreak to joy in the process. A love letter to the complicated, driven, inspired playwright and lyricist Howard Ashman, Howard is an intimate portrait of someone who was lost to AIDS before his time. Collaborating with Alan Menken, Ashman left a body of work any artist would envy, including Little Shop of Horrors, and the Disney animated features The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. Sadly, he died when was truly only getting started.
Hahn’s film takes its audience from Ashman’s childhood in Baltimore through his career and personal life and his struggle with HIV and AIDS, which the artist felt he needed to keep secret for most of his time working with Disney. There are interviews with his sister, some of his closest friends, and colleagues who worked with him, from every milestone of his career. His sister Sarah Gillespie describes a very imaginative boy who had drama in his soul from early on, referencing how he turned his ‘cowboys and indians’ figures into story characters, decorating them with tissue and glitter to make them distinct and add flair. Her voice is one of those heard throughout the film, as is the voice of his collaborator Alan Menken, managing director of the New York WPA Theater Kyle Renick, (where Ashman was artistic director), and Ashman’s life partner, architect Bill Lauch. None are presented as talking heads, but rather as voiceovers against images and footage from Ashman’s career and life.
There is also a lot of behind-the-scenes footage from when he was working on various Disney projects, which will thrill Disney fans. Recording sessions from The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast featuring Ashman guiding Jodi Benson, Angela Lansbury, and Jerry Orbach show the lyricist in his element and at the height of his creativity. That he was sick during all those sessions, though few knew it for most of that time, is a testament to his commitment to his art.
The director doesn’t shy away from Ashman’s experience with HIV and AIDS, and his fears about being rejected or ostracized because of his illness. The audience hears a recording of Ashman at the 92nd Y in New York that he attended having recently discovered he had HIV. We also learn Ashman had to take intravenous drugs to get through The Little Mermaid press junket.
Hahn documents the bigotry in this country around what was called ‘gay cancer’ at the time, and we hear from partner Bill Lauch about Ashman’s struggles and fears at the end of his life. He even considers the question of whether Ashman meant The Mob Song in Beauty and the Beast as a message about scapegoating and vilifying gay people for the AIDS epidemic.
Throughout the documentary, Howard presents Ashman as a complicated, intense, and sometimes difficult artist. Clearly this is not a film that ‘Disney-fies’ or sugarcoats Ashman’s life story, and it’s all the better for it. Howard is sometimes fun, sometimes heartbreaking, but it is always watchable, as a labor of love that celebrates a man who brought the world a great deal of joy through his art. Imagine how much more he could have created had he survived.
4 out of 5 stars