Fans of Disney as well as those interested in American history will be fascinated by writer/director/producer Don Hahn’s documentary Howard, now streaming on Disney+. They will also experience a host of emotions spanning from heartbreak to joy in the process. A love letter to the complicated, driven, inspired playwright and lyricist Howard Ashman, Howard is an intimate portrait of someone who was lost to AIDS before his time. Collaborating with Alan Menken, Ashman left a body of work any artist would envy, including Little Shop of Horrors, and the Disney animated features The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. Sadly, he died when was truly only getting started.
Hahn’s film takes its audience from Ashman’s childhood in Baltimore through his career and personal life and his struggle with HIV and AIDS, which the artist felt he needed to keep secret for most of his time working with Disney. There are interviews with his sister, some of his closest friends, and colleagues who worked with him, from every milestone of his career. His sister Sarah Gillespie describes a very imaginative boy who had drama in his soul from early on, referencing how he turned his ‘cowboys and indians’ figures into story characters, decorating them with tissue and glitter to make them distinct and add flair. Her voice is one of those heard throughout the film, as is the voice of his collaborator Alan Menken, managing director of the New York WPA Theater Kyle Renick, (where Ashman was artistic director), and Ashman’s life partner, architect Bill Lauch. None are presented as talking heads, but rather as voiceovers against images and footage from Ashman’s career and life.
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