‘Howard’ Movie Review: Howard Ashman’s Greatest Disney Hits

Howard Ashman was the lyricist behind the songs from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Prior to those films, he had a career in stage musicals. Sadly, he died in 1991 before Aladdin was completed. Howard is the new documentary about Ashman’s life and career. It takes you back to those classics and reveal some of the turmoil behind the scenes.

Disney Howard Ashman documentary
L-R: Howard Ashman, Alan Menken | Disney+

Don Hahn directed Howard so Ashman’s story is in good hands. Hahn produced Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Emperor’s New Groove and Atlantis so he’s steeped in Disney culture. His previous documentary, Waking Sleeping Beauty, showed his passion and knowledge extends beyond the films he produced. Howard’s story is told be one of his own and it is now playing on Disney+.

Howard Ashman IS ‘Howard’

Hahn tells much of Ashman’s early life in narration over family photos. Ashman’s family tell stories and some audio of Ashman himself winds up in this section. Ashman’s partner was Stuart White and they developed their early interest in production together, with White composing. 

They moved together to New York and this was when New York was scary. White was doing drugs and not working though, so Ashman auditioned new composers to work with him. Alan Menken won and was Ashman’s prime collaborator throughout his life. Hahn also presents some footage from a revival of one of Ashman’s old musicals, which suggest the entire recording exists somewhere. 

Howard Ashman’s musicals

Howard gets to Little Shop of Horrors about 20 minutes in. This was Ashman and Menken’s big hit, so much so that they’re still developing a third movie version to potentially star Chris Evans. Ashman says no monster show had been successful on stage, which begs the question of Phantom of the Opera, but technically he was human. A TV commercial for the stage show is neat too. 

L-R: Howard Ashman and Alan Menken | Disney+

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Ashman’s next musical, an adaptation of the movie Smile, failed, but it did introduce Ashman to Jodi Benson, who he’d later cast as Ariel. Snippets of workshop versions of songs color the documentary, but is there at least a recording of the Smile soundtrack available? The show may not have gone on but we’d still like to hear every piece of music Ashman ever recorded.  

The Disney years 

When Ashman got to Walt Disney Studios, he started in live-action. They assigned him the script to the Tina Turner biopic I,Tina which must have become What’s Love Got to Do With It. By 45 minutes into Howard, he begins working on The Little Mermaid and explains the concept of a want song to the studio, which became a staple of all their animated movies moving forward.

Howard Ashman and Paige O'Hara
Howard Ashman and Paige O’Hara | Disney+

RELATED: ‘Little Mermaid’ star Halle Bailey Describes ‘Upgraded’ Disney Live-Action Remake

Unfortunately, Beauty and the Beast coincides with his HIV diagnosis. He deteriorated quickly but kept working. Stories of his decline are harrowing, including audio of the lecture Ashman gave the night he received his diagnosis. Tales of Ashman toughing it out blend with footage of Paige O’Hara, Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury recording Beauty. It creates a bittersweet tone of melancholy while creating something that brought joy to so many.

There’s something for everyone in Howard. Disney fans will find a treasure trove of nostalgia in the second half of the film. Theater nerds will appreciate the highs and lows of Ashman’s stage career. Any human being can appreciate the journey of a passionate artist who wanted to make his mark right to the very end.