For every actor, director, writer, composer, there’s typically a singular piece they call back to as the thing, the object that inspired within them the need to create. If you mention Little Shop of Horrors (1986), The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), or Aladdin (1992), children of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s are likely to raise their hands, extoling the virtues of each one. Some might even proclaim one of these as the muse for their own work. For instance, this reviewer will admit to singing the lyrics to “Grow for Me” on more than one occasion when trying to get my first-born to eat. (Full-disclosure: I still sing it when he’s stubborn.) I’ve broken down in tears enroute to a post-college job as “Skid Row (Downtown)” played over my car speakers. There’s even an old joke between my mother and a family friend involving “Kiss the Girl.” Each of these stories, and the ones an entire generation have related to these films, all go back to one man: Howard Ashman. A prolific writer/playwright/singer/director, Academy Award winner Howard Ashman would be personally responsible for Walt Disney Animation’s renaissance period, though he would not live long enough to understand the legacy he’s created. In the documentary Howard, director Don Hahn (Waking Sleeping Beauty) gathers together those who worked with Ashman and who loved him as a means of honoring a life with so much more to give.
What immediately sets Howard apart from other documentaries is the absolute lack of talking heads. Rather than the audience watching one person after another tell their version of Ashman, Hahn places their voices overtop photos and archived footage or presents video featuring Ashman himself. Each voice is tagged with a name, a reference title, and is marked by a directional marker similar to > on the left or right bottom of the screen to indicate the speaker. After a while, as the stories bounce between different people, the audience feels more and more like they are listening in to a fluid conversation about Ashman, rather than a recorded and edited documentary. This is, perhaps, Hahn’s greatest achievement with Howard, as it never presents itself as apart from the audience. Rather, through the stories presented and the manner of visual aids, Hahn draws the audience closer, beckoning them to lean-in and go on a journey of discovery. Depending on where in Ashman’s life the story is tracking, you’ll hear from his mother, Shirley Ashman; his sister, Sarah Gillespie; former WPA Theatre manager Kyle Renick; his partner, Bill Lauch; actor Jodi Benson; collaborator Alan Menken; Hahn himself; and more.
While the documentary as a whole doesn’t uncover or explore any salacious material (this is a Disney product after all), there’s not a sense that Hahn overlooks or underplays any particular aspect of Ashman. Particularly as Hahn uses as much first-person material (video, interview recordings, and photographs) from Ashman, Howard is a story largely from Ashman himself. (One such example is a lecture Ashman’s giving to the Animation team available on The Little Mermaid home release under the name “Howard’s Lecture.”) Opening with footage of Ashman working with Paige O’Hara on Beauty and the Beast in a recording booth, the orchestra just outside in a larger area, the film provides the audience a small glimpse of Ashman offering precise notes to O’Hara on how to approach a particular note. This brief segment serves as a bittersweet cold open as Ashman never got to see the completed project, but it’s a perfect entry point as the audience can see Ashman working with incredible vigor and precision. This is important so that, when the documentary begins to address Ashman’s failing health due to AIDS and it circles back to this moment in his life, we’ll remember that his passion for his work did not wavier. This is, of course, not just supposition as former studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg attests on several occasions, as does Menken. But Howard isn’t all accolades and honorifics. Thanks to Shirley and Sarah, the audience is treated to moments of Ashman as a child, inviting us into a period in his life which shaped the artist to come. One story Sarah shares is of a time when she and her older brother were children and he created a model world out of their toys from which he would tell her stories and craft adventures. Between Sarah’s words and Hahn’s utilization of dramatic license via a newly made model, the audience is truly transported back to this moment of child-like imagination. This mixture of storytelling and recreation is used moderately and only when absolutely necessary as an obvious replacement for materials unavailable to help tell the story. For the majority of Howard, Hahn relies on the aforementioned collected materials, which, in combination with the various stories of Ashman’s life, results in a frequently emotional and poignant experience.
If there is a complaint to be had about Howard, it’s that so much of the film focuses on his creative pursuits versus the personal. Hahn does acknowledge and explore Ashman as a person — his education and his love life are not ignored — but the main focus is on his creative successes and failures. Some of this is due to the high profile successes he had (the aforementioned Little Shop of Horrors) and failures (God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater), but it’s most likely due to Ashman’s professional relationship with Disney, of which Hahn was directly a part of. Viewed with this in mind, Howard is almost certainly a cathartic experience for his coworkers and loved ones which may not resonate as strongly in audiences who are less connected to the subject matter. There was more than a single tear shed during the screening of Howard, so this reviewer is potentially biased in favor of the documentary, especially upon realizing how greatly Ashman’s work sculpted my youth. That said, with it being created by Hahn, made with care from contributions from those close to Ashman, and distributed via streaming service Disney+, one might question if Howard is an empty experience. The answer is an emphatic no.
As stated at the start of this, Howard Ashman’s work, his legacy, transcends more than a single generation, even if they are unfamiliar with the man himself. Through Don Hahn’s Howard and the extensive reach of Disney+, more of them may finally learn of the inventive mind behind their memories, learn of a persistence to create not what might be good, but what will be great, and to not settle, to not give in, and, most of all, to live on your own terms. With Howard, the world becomes the custodians of Ashman’s legacy.
Available for streaming on Disney+ beginning August 7th, 2020.
Head to the official Howard website for more information.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.