If you were ever in doubt about the political subtext behind characters like Ursula and The Beast, hideous outcasts shunned by their community, then this documentary should finally make that clear.
Howard Ashman was at the peak of his career—fresh off Little Mermaid’s sweeping win at the Grammys and Oscars, and concocting the iconic songs that would make up Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast—when he died of AIDS at 40. But even at that relatively young age, Ashman already had a lifetime’s worth of work to show. Howard, the documentary, gives us a glimpse into Howard’s inner and early life, starting with his fanciful and imaginative childhood, all the way down to his formative college years, his foundational work in “off, off” Broadway, and the breakout success of The Little Shop of Horrors the Musical. Disney isn’t the whole picture, the documentary rightfully proclaims, so in between the abovementioned highlights, director Don Hahn inserts pockets of heartwarming anecdotes from Howard’s friends and family, and some of Howard’s own wise words from interview snippets. It’s clear Hahn was a good friend of Ashman, since the documentary often feels like a warm get-together of the people who knew and loved Ashman best.
The brilliant, hair-raising recordings of Beauty and the Beast, especially Angela Lansbury’s rendition of the titular song (which went on to win Best Original Song at the 1991 Oscars) and “Be Our Guest,” which she performed with Jerry Orbach. As a friend of Ashman puts it, the sheer joy and delight of these recordings were in stark, painful contrast to what Ashman was feeling at that point. His health deteriorating, Ashman still made it a point to attend and direct the recordings with composer and creative partner Alan Menken, and the beautiful result of all these harmonies coming together lives on forever.