Movie Review: Howard – Everything You Need to Know
“Be our guest, be our guest. Put our service to the test.”
“Mister Aladdin, sir, have a wish or two or three. I’m on the job, you big nabob.”
“I’ve got gadgets and gizmos aplenty, I’ve got whozits and whatzits galore. You want thingamabobs? I’ve got twenty.”
Sure, you know these lyrics by heart, but how much do you know about the man who wrote them?
In a brilliant documentary entitled Howard, you’ll learn about the genius who somehow wrote unforgettable Disney classics even though he was sick and dying.
Imagine for a moment that someone that you respect greatly, someone that you love dearly, creates something significant but then dies before they may savor it.
You would want to show the world the person you knew, the one that history hasn’t acknowledged enough. And that’s the Howard documentary in a nutshell.
Noted Disney producer Don Hahn has worked on some of the greatest animated movies of the modern era.
Of course, Hahn relied on the skills of others to achieve his career successes. Animated movies are especially team-dependent endeavors.
These films ordinarily reflect the visions of numerous individuals. However, Hahn holds a special place in his heart for one person.
You may not know the name of Howard Ashman unless you are an Oscar trivia nut, a Disney diehard, or a musical theater aficionado.
I can assure you that his witty lyrics have forced you to sing along many times, though.
I’ve already quoted three of his classic songs: Be Our Guest, Friend Like Me, and Part of Your World.
I could have just as easily selected Beauty and the Beast, Gaston, Kiss the Girl, the Mob Song, Les Poissons, or Poor Unfortunate Souls.
As a lyricist, Ashman possessed a rare ability to write signature songs for protagonists and villains alike.
Nearly 30 years after Ashman’s death, his genius remains unquestioned.
Unfortunately, his profile never rose to the level of his frequent musical partner, Alan Menken.
Why? Well, Menken has since worked on Hercules and Enchanted and Tangled. Tragically, Ashman died in 1991.
In doing so, Ashman earned a heartbreaking title with his death. He became the first victim of AIDS to win an Oscar posthumously.
A horrid disease prematurely truncated his genius.
A Friend’s Celebration of Howard’s Life
Hahn seeks to eulogize his late friend with a documentary entitled Howard.
Any Disney+ subscriber will want to watch this fascinating insight about an Academy Award- and Grammy-winning talent.
Born in Maryland, Ashman moved to New York City after he graduated college.
William Goldman once commented that talent tends to cluster, and Ashman’s crew proves the theory.
Ashman and his boyfriend cobbled together a small group of theater lovers, and the group produced some unexpectedly successful Off-Broadway plays.
Along the way, Ashman attracted the attention of pop culture luminaries such as Kurt Vonnegut, Marvin Hamlisch, and Frank Oz.
The performer worked with each of them during his musical theater and early Hollywood run, albeit to varying degrees of success.
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater adapted the Vonnegut novel into a weird but entertaining play that included a song called – I kid you not – “Cheese Nips.”
Oz took one of Ashman’s most ambitious ideas, a musical version of Little Shop of Horrors, and turned it into a cult classic movie.
Alas, the seemingly perfect duo of Hamlisch and Ashman proved to be a “too many chefs” situation. Their joint musical, Smile, flopped.
The Disney Era
Still, the production accidentally foreshadowed later events, as one song seems prescient in hindsight.
Its name is Disneyland, and its singer was an unknown named Jodi Benson.
Yes, two future Disney Legends first worked together on a failed Broadway musical.
In fact, the reviews for Smile soured Ashman so much on Broadway that he finally accepted an offer from an admirer, Jeffrey Katzenberg.
At the time, Katzenberg led Disney’s motion picture division. Katzenberg had heard about Ashman through a mutual friend of theirs, David Geffen.
As a film historian, I marvel at the thought that Ashman had established connections that could have led him to DreamWorks Animation, had he lived longer.
After all, he befriended two of the three founders. That’s a theoretical, though.
What actually happened was that Katzenberg lured Ashman to Disney, hoping that a brilliant writer might alter the company’s fortunes.
Hahn, the director of Howard, had previously worked as a production manager for The Black Cauldron, a film that notoriously underachieved.
In the aftermath of that project, the new CEO, Michael Eisner, demanded excellence for all upcoming projects.
That task fell to Katzenberg, who, in turn, reunited Ashman and Menken as a musical super-team.
The duo proved perfect for the lost Disney style of the Nine Old Men. They wrote the songs that set the tone for the Disney Renaissance.
Over time, Ashman accepted that the best place to create Broadway shows was in animated movies, making his marriage to Disney ideal for both parties.
Howard’s Three Lives
The structure of Howard as a documentary works similarly to a movie in that there are three acts.
The Disney stuff happens in roughly the final third. That doesn’t mean that you should skip to the dream pairing, though.
Instead, you should watch from the beginning, as Hahn lovingly details how circumstances influenced Ashman’s ascension.
A natural storyteller, Ashman was first a boy trying to entertain his sister and stave off her boredom for a while.
Later, he fell in love with a boy, and they ran off to conquer Broadway together. Sadly, their relationship wouldn’t survive the big city.
Still, these poignant moments reflect that Ashman possessed rare and profound maturity when it came to relationships and leadership.
Yet, he was still mercurial and insecure enough to break stuff and scream at loved ones when life went wrong.
Finally, Ashman achieved the job of his dreams, even though he had never truly dreamt of it.
At this point, life’s twisted sense of humor took hold, as Ashman developed HIV.
Since the disease had previously claimed the lives of friends and his college boyfriend, Ashman knew that he wouldn’t survive it.
Similarly, the writer worried that Disney may fire him for PR reasons rather than let a gay man create stories for children.
Why You Should Watch Howard
Thankfully, that didn’t happen, as confidants kept his secret for roughly two years. When Disney finally found out, well, I don’t want to spoil anything.
Suffice to say that Ashman worked until the end, and society’s discomfort with his illness even helped him in the creative process.
“The Mob Song” from Beauty and the Beast underscores how some of us react to the things we fear, the things we don’t understand.
Even as he neared the end, Ashman still held up a mirror to society to show us ways where we should improve.
Hahn dutifully presents a warts-and-all representation of his friend. And any self-respecting Disney fan must watch the film.
Otherwise, you’ll never fully appreciate the brilliance of the messaging in Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid.
Howard is one of the most captivating documentaries in recent memory and highly recommended viewing.
PS: This documentary pairs oddly well with a current Hulu offering about Lin-Manuel Miranda, We Are Freestyle Love Supreme, which I watched a few weeks ago.
Both stories encapsulate the importance of friends in helping talented artists self-actualize.