There is nothing Disneyfied about this frankly intimate documentary on the late Howard Ashman, the brilliant lyricist behind such animated Mouse House musicals as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Ashman was only 40 when he died of complications from AIDS in 1991. His life partner, architect Bill Lauch, picked up the posthumous Oscar that Ashman won for Beauty. Jeffrey Katzenberg, then propelling Disney’s animation renaissance, recalls seeing Ashman near the end, having lost his sight and weighing barely 80 pounds. It’s unlikely such a graphic depiction will ever surface on Blu-ray extras for the family-friendly blockbusters that Ashman created with composer Alan Menken — so cheers to Disney+ for presenting the revelatory doc. (It begins streaming on the service starting August 7th.)
Directed by veteran Disney producer Don Hahn, Howard is a labor of love that shows admirable restraint about using spoonful of sugars to make the medicine go down. With the help of archival photos and commentary from Ashman’s mother and sister, the film deftly moves from his Baltimore childhood — sports never had a chance against the appeal of dressing up and creating shows in his room — to his Indiana University days where he met his first love, Stuart White. The two moved to New York and worked at the small WPA theater where Ashman and Menken’s Little Shop of Horrors became a calling card for the former’s future success as a lyricist, librettist and director. Stumbling blocks included Ashman’s breakup with the promiscuous White and the full-on failure of Smile, the Broadway musical that marked a contentious collaboration with Tony- (A Chorus Line) and Oscar-winner (The Way We Were) Marvin Hamlisch.
Ashman dodged disillusion by moving to Hollywood and learning that the future of the Broadway musical was in Disney animation, and the documentary is filled with scenes of Ashman the perfectionist at work on The Little Mermaid. The suits are appalled at first when he demands that the villainous Ursula be drawn a G-rated version of drag queen Divine and that Sebastian the crab should be Jamaican — all the better to catch the lilt of “Under the Sea.” And he could be hard on singers who couldn’t match the exact intonation he wanted. Even such pros as Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach had to pay heed to get “Be My Guest” from Beauty just right.
It’s when Ashman and Lauch are supervising the building of their dream house in upstate New York that the lyricist notices the white patches on his throat (it’s thrush) that lead to an HIV test; he decides to keep the results secret due to his fears that Disney moral arbiters might kick him to the curb. The early 1990s, we’re reminded, were not the most enlightened times in terms of how society viewed AIDS sufferers, and as the crowd tries to kill the Beast in “Mob Song,” Ashman’s lyrics feel powerfully personal: “We don’t like what we don’t understand.”
Such blunt honesty and rare introspection sets Howard apart from the usual cut-and-paste trips down memory lane. The film grows intensely moving as Ashman, unable to climb steps, loses his strength and sequesters himself for intravenous treatments. He ends up hiding out from the world that he, like his little mermaid, has always longed to be a part of. Next time you hear that song — “Up where they walk/Up where they run/Up where they stay all day in the sun/Wanderin’ free/Wish I could be/Part of that world” — think of Ashman and the talent he showed that, as Lauch tell us, was “just the tip of the iceberg.” It’s hard to argue.