“Howard” stars Howard Ashman, Sarah Gillespie, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Bill Lauch, Alan Menken, Peter Schneider, Jodi Benson, and Paige O’Hara. Released in the United States on December 18, 2018, followed by a Disney+ release on August 7, 2020, the film chronicles the life and career of songwriter Howard Ashman.
The film is written and directed by Don Hahn, who produced several Disney films like “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast” and directed “Waking Sleeping Beauty”. You ever wonder why we have songs like “Under the Sea” and “Be Our Guest” stuck in our heads for years? Well, you have Howard Ashman to thank. Known for writing song lyrics for projects like “Little Shop of Horrors”, “The Little Mermaid”, and “Beauty and the Beast”, Ashman became one of the elements that carried Disney out of the dark ages and brought it back to its glory days with the Renaissance Era in the 90s. His success at Disney came at an unfortunate end when he tragically died from AIDS in 1991, one year before the premiere of “Aladdin”, his last film as a songwriter. However, his legacy still lives on due to him creating some of his best songs that have us hitting the repeat button over and over again until it breaks. This documentary shows us how he became famous in the first place along with his personal life. It made its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2018 before premiering in limited theaters in December. Two years later, it finally made its way to Disney+ for everyone to see, and by that, I mean everyone who has a Disney+ subscription. I haven’t reviewed a lot of documentaries on my blog, but after talking about “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” back in 2018, I decided to give the genre another chance by reviewing an in-depth look at one of the people who were involved with some of my favorite Disney films. “Hamilton” and “Black Is King” were able to convince more people to subscribe to the streaming service, so let’s see if this latest Disney documentary can do the same.
Told through archival footage and interviews from Howard Ashman’s friends and family, the documentary provides an in-depth look at Ashman’s career as well as his personal life, ranging from his work in theater to working for Disney to his untimely death from AIDS. While most documentaries use on-camera interviews of people talking about their own experiences, others like “Howard” and Hahn’s previous documentary, “Waking Sleeping Beauty”, use audio interviews to narrate specific events that they experienced themselves. As someone who hasn’t watched a lot of documentaries aside from “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, I find this presentation to be quite unique, and it was very smart of the filmmakers to use the speech bubbles to indicate who’s talking. As for the actual film itself, it definitely looked like that Don Hahn took plenty of effort to showcase Ashman as an inspiring songwriter and a human being. It’s not exactly 100% impactful, save for the last 10 minutes that were best described as “endearing”, but it’s a fascinating and heartfelt look at the lyricist who defied the odds to create some of the memorable songs that live in our hearts forever. It was nicely edited together with the interviews, the behind-the-scenes footage, and some of the visual sequences that describe certain parts of Ashman’s personal life, and the musical score by Alan Menken and Chris Bacon successfully added a subtle touch to the ups and downs of Ashman’s career. I think one of the moments that interested me the most in this documentary was the fact that Howard actually started out his career writing, directing, and providing music for Broadway productions like “Little Shop of Horrors” and the adaptation of the 1975 comedy film, “Smile”. I usually know him for his involvement with Disney, but after seeing what he had done in the world of Broadway, it made me appreciate the guy even more. So if you guys are wondering why Disney chose Ashman and Alan Menken to provide the songs for “The Little Mermaid”, “Beauty and the Beast”, and “Aladdin”, there’s your answer.
Overall, “Howard” has enough information and passion to create an intriguing and touching tribute to Howard Ashman’s accomplishments. It’s close to being as impactful as “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, but its sheer amount of heart and honesty is enough for me to classify this film as a well-deserved addition to the Disney+ family. Maybe someday I will check out the other documentaries that relate to Disney like “Waking Sleeping Beauty”, but until then, this is a good start in my quest to discover the studio’s secrets. If you’re one of the people who are curious about Ashman’s personal life, I believe this film is the appropriate option for you.