Released: 7th August
Seen: 8th August
Were it not for Howard Ashman, there’s a chance that Disney studios wouldn’t be the behemoth that it is today. The legendary lyricist is partially responsible (in conjunction with his friend Alan Menkin) for the songs from The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin which would be the three films that began the Disney Renaissance and, effectively, saved the company. He also wrote one of the greatest musicals of all time with Little Shop of Horrors, a masterpiece no one expected to work. His career was the stuff that icons are made of but judge as Howard was reaching his peak, he was taken from us. Now, in this hell year, we are given a documentary to honour a legend who should never be forgotten.
Howard follows the short career of Howard Ashman, from his first play to his tragic passing from AIDS. Throughout the run of the film, told through voice over using photos and archival footage from Howard’s life, we’re told of his surprise successes and depressing failures before he landed in the trailers where the Disney animators were thrown and cemented his place in cinematic history by reviving the most famous company on the planet, teaching them how to write musicals and creating touchstones of pop culture that we still listen to today.
The story of Howard Ashman’s life is genuinely fascinating and this film doesn’t shy away from all the facets of this absolute genius. It’s a roller coaster of emotions just learning how this perfectionist had to cope with things like his show Smile not getting the reception he believed it should get, or how he handled trying to write some of the most important musicals of the 90s while also battling with a terminal illness. It doesn’t portray him as a saint, the film shows how human he was and includes both his happy moments and moments of frustration, all told by a large group of his friends and coworkers.
The film deviates a little from a normal talking head documentary, where we would normally keep cutting to various people in various rooms talking about it. The deviation being that there’s really no new footage here, it’s all audio recordings over a montage of photos and footage from this period of Howard’s life. There’s an occasional seemingly new establishing shot of a few locations brought up during the film but for the most part we’re transported back to this period in history when Howard was on top of his game and one of the most important figures in film.
There doesn’t feel like there’s anything held back, including things that might have made Disney look bad which is honestly kind of impressive. It feels honest, seeing how someone at this point of history would try and deal with an AIDS diagnosis while working for the most famous family friendly company on the planet. It doesn’t shy away from how bad things were back then for gay people and at one point when Howard states he didn’t tell anyone about his illness specifically because he worried how Disney might react… it’s heartbreaking, one of many heartbreaking moments.
It’s impressive how so much is packed into this 94 minute film but it feels like they manage to get in all the most important elements, admittedly the bulk of it is about the Disney films (Hi, look who produced the darn thing) but it still never feels like something got shafted or shortened to make room for the mouse. Everything flows naturally and you get so much fascinating information about this icon and how he basically worked until the day he died, his passion for his work is clear as could be.
Howard is the perfect way to honour the legend who, to quote the dedication at the end of Beauty & the Beast, gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul. It’s warm, touching and brilliantly done. An absolute must see for anyone who still catches themselves humming Be Our Guest or longing to go Somewhere That’s Green.
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