For those not among the deep-dive Disney faithful, the name Howard Ashman may only spark the slightest hint of recognition, but if you were told he’s the man who wrote the lyrics to all the songs in The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, you may well light up like a Christmas tree. Indeed, Ashman’s talents were that special. The word-half of the Ashman and (Alan) Menken songwriting duo, he was a veritable genius and was at the top of his game when he passed away at age 40 in 1991 from AIDS.
Now Ashman’s life story is getting a sublime (and long overdue) Disney+ documentary treatment, courtesy of director and longtime Disney producer Don Hahn. (After premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018, it’s finally seeing the light of day on Disney+.) Chock-full of mesmerizing archival photos and video clips, Howard does ample justice to a man whose talents were gone far too soon… but not before blessing us with some of the best songs in the Disney canon.
Beginning with his birth in Baltimore in 1950, we learn about the boy behind the man—the little kid, as his sister relates, who made up fantastical stories and was already (at age 5) showing the sparks of the man he would become. More content to give his plastic cowboy figures fantastical outfits than to kick a football, Ashman knew early-on that theater and storytelling would be his life.
After college, Ashman made his way to New York City in the mid-70s and worked hard to make a go of it. When doors closed, he opened ones of his own, forming the WPA Theater and producing a handful of well-received musicals, including Little Shop of Horrors, his first of many fruitful partnerships with Menken. From there, the pair eventually ended up at Disney and the rest, as they say, is history.
Only now, we get to live that history as it happened. From behind the scenes on the scoring stage, we get to watch as Ashman directs Jodi Benson’s inflections on The Little Mermaid’s “Part of Your World” or suggests ways that Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach could get Beauty and the Beast’s “Be Our Guest” just right. Virtually every frame gives us a true sense of the dogged perfectionist he was, along with the motivations and fears that drove him.
If we’re to believe his sister’s account in the documentary, Ashman always kept his professional and personal lives separate. But at the same time, it’s hard to believe that he just came up with certain lyrics in a vacuum, particularly during the height of the AIDS crisis, two years after he himself was diagnosed with “the gay cancer”. Consider Beauty’s “The Mob Song”: “We don’t like what we don’t understand / In fact, it scares us / And this monster is mysterious at least”.
Hahn brilliantly rolls the dark and the light together into an ultimately uplifting (though at times gutting) documentary. Along with sitting down to speak with nearly everyone who crossed paths with Ashman over the years, he wisely (as director Richard Lowenstein did in January’s superb Michael Hutchence: Mystify documentary) limits the contemporary interviews to audio-only so as to not disrupt the historical flow and the timeline.
Menken called his partnership with Ashman one of “pure creative energy”, and Howard makes that crystal clear. And though his amazing work will live on in perpetuity, it’s heartbreaking to imagine all that could have been, had he been able to remain part of our world.