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Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Howard’ on Disney+, the Life and Tragic Death of a Man Who Reinvigorated Disney Animated Films

More than two years after its debut at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, Howard, the documentary profile of Howard Ashman, arrives on Disney+. If his name isn’t familiar to you, then maybe the songs he wrote are: “Under the Sea,” “Be Our Guest,” “Prince Ali” … the guy is a legendary lyricist who went from Broadway to Disney to Oscar and Grammy glory in his tragically brief life. So Disney superfans, this doc might be right up your alley, but be warned, it doesn’t have a happily-ever-after ending.

HOWARD: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?

The Gist: It’s 1990. An orchestra readies its instruments; Howard directs Paige O’Hara, the voice of Belle in Beauty and the Beast, on some vocal inflections for the film’s opening musical number. Sadly, he wouldn’t live to see the movie’s premiere, or enjoy its status as an instant classic. Cut to 1950s Baltimore, where young Howard staged his toys in elaborate costumes and scenarios for his sister, Sarah Gillepsie. He showed a real flair for performance, but his father put the kibosh on dance lessons; hoping his son might be encouraged to be a typical male with typically male interests, Pops took Howard fishing once, but they both realized it just wasn’t going to happen.

After college, in the mid-’70s, Howard moved to New York City where he and his lover/partner Stuart White formed a theatre production company in a skeevy part of town. Ashman wrote and produced a hit off-Broadway adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut novel God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, then scored a major breakthrough with Little Shop of Horrors, a huge hit off and on Broadway that became a 1986 motion picture that eventually earned a cult following.

By the time Little Shop crossed over to the silver screen, Disney came knocking. They needed someone to pen lyrics for a new animated fairy tale, The Little Mermaid, so he paired up with composer Alan Menken to write a pile of irrepressible songs — and rejuvenate Disney’s then-staid afterthought of an animation division. Midway through production, Howard was diagnosed with HIV. To avoid the inevitable stigma of a gay man with “the gay cancer” working on a children’s movie, he kept his illness secret, even from his closest collaborators, and kept working. He and Menken crafted several numbers for Aladdin — one from his bed at St. Vincent’s Hospital — and Beauty and the Beast before the sad inevitability of AIDS took him.

HOWARD, from left: songwriter Howard Ashman, Paige O'Hara (voice of Belle) during a recording session for BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991), 2018. © Disney+ / Courtesy Everett Collection
Photo: Disney+/Courtesy Everett Collection

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Two docs Disney aficionados have likely already seen: Waking Sleeping Beauty offers a broader view of Disney’s late-’80s/early-’90s animation renaissance (which, obviously, included Howard as a key player); Frank and Ollie chronicled the work of Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, two chief Disney animators who were crucial players in the making of Snow White, Pinocchio, The Jungle Book and many other Disney classics.

Performance Worth Watching: Howard’s gutsy refusal to stop working despite his increasing frailty — he did a Little Mermaid press junket with an IV catheter in his chest — in his final two years is sad, but inspiring, because we can’t imagine Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin without his songs.

Memorable Dialogue: One commentator sums up the original run of Little Shop of Horrors, which was set on Skid Row, and staged in a theatre literally on Skid Row: “It felt like you were seeing something that these really talented people threw together in a garage somewhere, and somehow they got these great actors and great sets and costumes, and they’re putting on this professional-looking show in this dump!”

Sex and Skin: None.

Our Take: Disappointingly, director Don Hahn relies quite heavily on laying voiceover commentary overtop slow zooms on archival photographs, a visually uninspired approach to tell the story of a man whose work was so lively and colorful. Maybe there are rights or financial issues involved here, or there’s just a dearth of archival films, but even a snatch or two of footage from Mr. Rosewater or the original Little Shop would’ve prevented the first half of this doc from being a lot of talking about vibrant things without ever seeing the vibrant things.

Shortcomings aside, there are two reasons to watch Howard. One, it’s jammed with choice Big Disney Moments, fascinating behind-the-scenes trivia and easter eggs, including: Footage of Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach absolutely nailing their performances while recording “Be Our Guest” with a live symphony. Howard’s battle with Disney head honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg to keep “Part of Your World” in The Little Mermaid, which is perhaps the perfect example as to why executives shouldn’t be creative consultants. A glimpse at a pitch letter Disney sent to Howard; they wanted him for Mermaid, a doomed project known as Dufus (!!) or a Mary Poppins sequel (which wouldn’t come to fruition for another 30 years). And a look at how Howard indelibly shaped the storytelling-through-song style Disney would adopt for decades, with great success (The Lion King, Mulan, Moana, Frozen, etc.).

Two, Howard Ashton is one person among hundreds of thousands who succumbed to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the ’80s and ’90s — hundreds of thousands whose stories have been minimized or ignored for the mere fact that the disease affected so many from the gay community. It’s shocking to hear Bill Lauch, Howard’s partner at his time of death, say Howard didn’t get tested for HIV because it might result in losing his health insurance (as a workaround, they tested his T cell count instead). It’s shocking that he hid his illness even from his close friend and creative partner Menken for months and months. It’s shocking how hateful types shamed those afflicted with AIDS for their “sins” (Menken theorizes that Howard wrote “Humiliate the Boy,” a deleted song from Aladdin, to channel his frustration with stigmatization). More of these stories from the frontlines of the epidemic deserve to be heard, documented and acknowledged.

Our Call: STREAM IT. Howard is by no means a perfect documentary, but it’s a compelling and worthwhile account of an influential gay man’s creative triumphs and tragic death.

Stream Howard on Disney+

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