Josh Reviews the Documentary Howard
Don Hahn’s beautiful documentary Howard is a tribute to the life and work of Howard Ashman, the extraordinarily talented songwriter who wrote the book and lyrics for Little Shop of Horrors and, along with composer Alan Menken, wrote the songs for Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin.
This film, Howard, looks back at Mr. Ashman’s childhood, his start in the theatre, and of course his years helping lead the “Disney Renaissance” that kicked off with The Little Mermaid in 1989, a return of Disney Animation to prominence and success after many years in the doldrums. This documentary makes the case for Mr. Ashman’s being a key player in the creative success of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. Some of my favorite moments in the film are hearing Mr. Ashman, in archival footage, talk about his philosophy and approach to crafting the music for those animated films. The documentary is filled with fascinating stories, such as Mr. Ashman’s battle to preserve the song “Part of Their World” in The Little Mermaid (fighting against those who found the song boring), or how he took the original song-less opening of Beauty and the Beast and turned it into the magnificent “Little Town” that introduces most of the characters. (Can you imagine either of those films without those songs??)
Don Hahn, who directed the documentary, was, along with Mr. Ashman, involved in many of those wonderful early “Disney Renaissance” films, producing Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Mr. Hahn has also created several interesting documentaries, most notably the phenomenal film Waking Sleeping Beauty, which charts the tumultuous years in Disney Animation that resulted in the successes of The Little Mermaid and the films that followed. (Click here for my review, and seriously, if you are a Disney fan and you haven’t watched Waking Sleeping Beauty, watch it immediately.) (I also highly recommend the documentary The Sweat Box, directed by Trudie Styler & John-Paul Davidson, which is a fascinating look at the tumultuous creation of the film that became The Emperor’s New Groove. Click here for my review. Disney has blocked all official releases of that incredible film, but if you search the internet you’ll probably be able to find it.)
As was Mr. Hahn’s approach in Waking Sleeping Beauty, for Howard Mr. Hahn has avoided the usual “talking heads” approach to documentaries. Except for a handful of interviews (mostly with Mr. Ashman himself) seen in archival footage, we don’t actually see the faces of any of the people interviewed for this film. Their voices provide a narration for the film, but what we see onscreen is a magnificent collection of clips and old footage from throughout Mr. Ashman’s life, along with a wealth of behind-the-scenes material from the creation of those Disney films. The result is wonderfully intimate, giving the viewer a “you are there” approach to the stories we’re being told about Mr. Ashman’s life and work.
The film is filled with fascinating insights both into the life of Mr. Ashman, and into the creation of those Disney films that are so beloved by so many. I’ve watched a lot of behind-the-scenes material on the making of those Disney films (I knew, for example, that it was Mr. Ashman’s idea to make Sebastian the crab Jamaican), but I was surprised and delighted to learn, for instance, that Mr. Ashman suggested modeling the villain Ursula after Divine from John Waters’ Pink Flamingoes. Wow!
But my very favorite behind-the-scenes details in this film are the generous excerpts of Mr. Ashman’s initial demos (created with Alan Menken) for those Disney films. Hearing Mr. Ashman himself sing those classic Disney songs is very moving.
Speaking of Mr. Ashman’s frequent collaborator Alan Menken, Mr. Menken has created a beautiful score for this film.
Howard Ashman was only 40 years old when he died of AIDS in 1991. It’s heartbreaking to consider all the amazing work he might have created had he not been struck down in his prime. As it is, Mr. Ashman left an indelible mark on the theatre and on the cinema. Howard is a beautiful and fascinating tribute to this creative giant.
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