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Howard, a Lackluster Tribute to Beloved Disney Lyricist Howard Ashman

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From Howard (2018), dir. Don Hahn (all images courtesy Disney)

Howard Ashman had a queer tale as old as time. The American playwright and lyricist remains beloved for his work with composer Alan Menken on the songs for Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and (some of) Aladdin. He was only 40 years old in 1991 when, like many of the best queer artists of his era, his life was tragically cut short by AIDS. Longtime Disney producer Don Hahn’s new documentary Howard covers Ashman’s life and work in a generally Wikipedia-like way that does not measure up to the man’s stature. Ashman’s friends, family, and collaborators — including Menken, his sister Sarah Gillespie, and his partner Bill Lauch — guide us through his life via disappointingly mundane anecdotes. 

What few gems the film holds come from clips of Ashman himself in which he discusses his work — not just his successes, but also his failures. Footage of recording sessions for Beauty and the Beast may be the best part, vaguely reminiscent of D.A. Pennebaker’s Original Cast Album: Company, though lacking that film’s edge. The lack of illuminating material is a shame, considering how dutifully Gillespie has worked to archive her brother’s materials and pay tribute to him, whether on her website or through in-depth interviews. The film is strikingly lacking in insight into Ashman’s work, favoring instead a lazy timeline of his career and eventual illness. 

The approach to queerness (more specifically, gayness) that Hahn takes is about as surface-level as the likes of Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman. It’s open about Ashman’s sexuality without ever interrogating how it influenced his art. It doesn’t give the viewer much of a chance to get to know him as a human being outside of his career, in particular neglecting Lauch’s point of view. As pleasant as it is to see a mainstream film premiering on Disney+ not shy away from highlighting a gay man, it isn’t surprising that it would not be interested in diving deeper. After all, Disney has a penchant for whitewashing its history, from its longtime denial of Song of the South to its self-congratulatory depiction of Walt Disney and author P.L. Travers’s toxic work relationship in Saving Mr. Banks. If the documentary felt more focused, I might even accuse it of being outright revisionist; as it is, it simply haphazardly depoliticizes Ashman’s work.

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From Howard: Howard Ashman directing Paige O’Hara (the voice of Belle) recording for Beauty and the Beast

Not a single voice in the film wants to reckon with the kind of artist Ashman was. “I think that was the genius of Howard; he was not political,” producer Peter Schneider says at one point, with Gillespie adding, “I don’t think he put his personal life in anything he wrote or did.” But such statements directly contradict so much of Ashman’s lyrics. It’s easy to posit that “Somewhere That’s Green” from Little Shop of Horrors is a direct reflection of him wanting a “normal life,” but the show’s queerness exists beyond that. Its disenfranchised characters — from their economic status to their abusive relationships — are absolutely of a kind with the characters in the Disney movies Ashman worked on, singing for a way out of their oppression and isolation, hoping to find somewhere they’ll be accepted and happy. 

As Kyle Turner wrote for Vice, “Before the dandyish candelabra and the angry mob — before Disney released Pride merch and Frozen‘s Elsa came out of the closet — Ashman understood and expressed the desire to be seen.” It is impossible to look at “Somewhere That’s Green,” “Skid Row (Downtown),” “Part of Your World,” or “Belle” and not see this overarching theme of outcasts who long for something more. The closest the film gets to dissecting Ashman’s lyrics comes by bluntly wielding AIDS, in the same tired way that most tragedies do. It shallowly suggests “Prince Ali (Reprise)” from Aladdin was a method of getting out his frustration with battling the disease, or that “The Mob Song” from Beauty and the Beast was about anti-LGBT protests.

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From Howard: Howard Ashman with frequent collaborator Alan Menken

That Howard has no interest in analyzing Ashman’s work in any meaningful way is not dissimilar to the way that Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen skims over how important and meaningful queer coding is. It seeks to explore a queer icon without exploring what made their work so impactful to queer audiences, both as children and adults. There are no queer voices discussing the meaning behind some of his words, both in his lyrics and in the archival footage of him. Nor are they employed to discuss his influence. Howard is less a tribute to an artist and the iconic pop culture figures he helped define than a stiff glimpse into his career, lacking the heart and soul of any of the animated films Hahn worked on with him. Howard Ashman gave an entire generation songs which they still hold dear. He deserves a biography with the passion to match that legacy.

Howard is now available to stream on Disney+.


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