Howard begins with Howard Ashman's sister relating a story of how he used to entertain her by setting up his room, dressing in costume, and taking her on a tour of the worlds he created. This is who Ashman was, even at a young age - a showman, a storyteller, a magic maker.
This documentary produced by Don Hahn, who worked with Howard as a producer on Beauty and the Beast, tells the story of Howard Ashman from his early years to his untimely death due to AIDS related complications. It's told through the voices of Ashman's family, friends and creative colleagues.
I loved the fact that spent so much time during his years before Disney. I almost liked that section better mainly because I was unfamiliar with most of it. I know that he and Alan Menken created my favorite musical of all time The Little Shop of Horrors, but I didn't know all the stories around it. I didn't even know about his first musical God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater which they produced at his tiny co-op theater. And I didn't know a lot about Smile which he wrote with the legendary Marvin Hamlisch.
But, of course I loved the Disney parts as well. I remember being an animation student in 1989 at CalArts. Disney put together a screening for us students of their latest animated film. None of us knew what it was other than it was a return to fairy tales. I remember walking out with my friends and we could not stop talking about it. THIS is why we went to animation school. And, we went back to school and everyone drew a character from the movie from memory on this pillar in the animation studio. Sadly, that pillar has been painted over (especially since there are a few big names in the animation industry today who drew on it), but the memory of this film lives on. I am, of course, talking about The Little Mermaid which was the first of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's collaborations with Disney.
There is some wonderful archival footage from those days, much of which I hadn't seen before. During their time at Disney, they worked, at first, on Aladdin, but were then transferred over to Beauty and the Beast which was a production in trouble and they thought putting Ashman and Menken on it would help it. Which, of course, it did, making it the first animated film to be nominated for an Academy Award. Sadly, the Disney years were the years in which Ashman found out that he had contracted HIV and subsequently died from AIDS related complications. At first, he didn't want to tell people, but it began to become too much and he had to let Disney know.
I spent half the film sobbing. It brought me back to a time where I saw friends die to the disease. Back in those days, HIV/AIDS was a death sentence and people were afraid of talking about it due to the stigma. People were afraid of losing their insurance, their livelihoods, their friends. It was sad to see Ashman go through the same things, despite his fame. That he couldn't talk about it until the very end because he was afraid that Disney would fire him. At the same time, it was heartening to see that Disney's response was anything but condemning.
And, when they talk about "The Mob Song" from Beauty and the Beast, Howard used that moment to mix politics with music. I never heard it before they started to play it in context, but you can literally hear it is about people's fear of people with AIDS. It gave me chills.
Where I bawled the most was a moment that Hahn related. While visiting Howard in the hospital, he told him, "Howard, you wouldn't believe it. People love this movie. Who would have thought?" Ashman replied, "I would have."
During the Oscars that year, Ashman's husband Bill Lauch accepted his award and spoke of Ashman's illness, as he was the first winner to pass from AIDS related complications. I think this was also the first time somebody's same-sex partner to accept an award.
While there is sadness in the film, it really is an amazing celebration of a creative man who helped bring Disney's animation back to life and who's life was cut too short. It is really one of the best Disney related documentaries, up there with Waking Sleeping Beauty and The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story. I highly recommend this film for anyone who wants to be inspired to shoot for your dreams.