'Howard': Film Review | Tribeca 2018

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
A rich cinematic portrait.

Don Hahn's documentary chronicles the life and career of Howard Ashman, the legendary lyricist of 'Beauty and the Beast,' 'Little Shop of Horrors,' 'Aladdin' and 'The Little Mermaid.'

Howard Ashman passed away nearly three decades ago, but his career is going stronger than ever. The live-action movie version of Beauty and the Beast was a box-office smash last year. The stage version of Aladdin is attracting sell-out Broadway crowds. And live-action cinematic versions of that animated classic and The Little Mermaid are currently in development. The time is ripe, then, for Don Hahn's documentary paying loving tribute to the lyricist whose work helped kickstart a new golden era of animated musicals. Receiving its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Howard should be essential viewing for movie and theater buffs alike.

Featuring interviews with many of Ashman's friends, family members and collaborators as well as audio commentary from his partner Bill Lauch, the film delivers an extremely personal portrait of its subject. It's not surprising, considering that longtime Disney veteran Hahn produced 1991's Beauty and the Beast, Ashman's final project.

Ashman's sister Sarah recounts how her brother used to entertain family members and friends with homemade shows created from toys. When he was a young boy, he joined a children's theater company and began writing musicals as a teenager. After graduating college, Ashman moved to New York City and co-founded the WPA Theatre, a hole-in-the-wall space on the second floor of a nondescript office building on lower Fifth Avenue.

It was there that he met composer Alan Menken, who describes the fledgling theater as a "theatrical monastery." The two first collaborated on an ambitious musicalization of Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, which received the blessing of the writer himself but failed when the production moved to a larger theater.

In a filmed interview from the time, Ashman says that his next show would be "attention-grabbing" and have a "large gimmick." Little Shop of Horrors, adapted from Roger Corman's 1960 cult horror-comedy film, filled the bill perfectly. The musical, which bowed in 1982, became an instant sensation, and Ashman and Menken, having learned their lesson, refused offers to move the show to Broadway. Instead, it enjoyed a five-year run at the East Village's Orpheum Theater and has been a theatrical mainstay ever since. Ashman went on to write the screenplay for the 1986 movie version.

It was around then that Ashman met architect Lauch, with whom he was involved until his death. Their first date was attending the Grammy Awards, where Ashman was nominated for the cast album of Little Shop of Horrors.

Flush with success, Ashman then collaborated with Marvin Hamlisch on a Broadway musical adaptation of the 1975 film Smile. The two men didn't click, their tension evident in an audiotape of a work session for the show. The musical was a resounding flop upon its 1986 opening, and a devastated Ashman was wooed by Jeffrey Katzenberg to move to California and work at Disney.

Although the Disney animation department was at a low point then, Ashman quickly found his niche. In an audio recording of an interview at New York City's 92nd Street Y, he says that while he considers live-action movie musicals to be dead, animated musicals could thrive. What he doesn't mention is that he was diagnosed as HIV-positive earlier that day.

Ashman kept his illness a secret from nearly everyone, including Menken, with whom he was then working on Aladdin. It wasn't until the night the pair won an Oscar for the song "Under the Sea" from The Little Mermaid that Ashman told Menken that he needed to tell him something. A few days later, Menken went to Ashman's home in upstate New York and received the news.

Ashman continued working until the very end. Menken recalls how they worked on songs for Beauty and the Beast in Ashman's hospital room. The lyricist died before he could see the finished film, winning another Oscar, this time posthumously, for the title song.

Besides its insightful commentary, the documentary offers a wealth of fascinating archival footage. The most priceless is video of a recording session for Beauty and the Beast featuring Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach, the latter seen performing "Be Our Guest."

Paying suitable tribute without resorting to hagiography, Howard provides a thoughtful, warts-and-all profile of its subject. It succeeds beautifully in inducing both joy and sorrow: joy at the remarkable work Ashman produced, and sorrow that he left us so early and deprived us of the talent that still had so much to give.

Production company: Stone Circle Pictures
Director-screenwriter: Don Hahn
Producers: Lori Korngiebel, Don Hahn
Executive producers: Don Hahn Jonathan Polenz
Editor: Stephen Yao
Composer: Alan Menken
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Documentary)

92 minutes