November 24, 2020
Directed by Don Hahn
Reviewed by Bruce Ward
The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s/1990s robbed the world of too many talented artists from all creative fields, many of whom were at the top of their game, with so much more to share with the world.
Howard Ashman, the brilliant lyricist of stage musicals such as Little Shop of Horrors and Smile, was one of these artists. Along with his longtime composer, Alan Menken, Ashman was a driving force in creating what became known as the Disney Renaissance, with the 1989 release of The Little Mermaid, the first Disney fairy tale in thirty years.
Howard, a documentary film on Ashman’s life, is available for streaming on Disney +, and, while it is a highly entertaining look at the craftsmanship of Ashman’s work, it is also a credit to the Disney organization that it does not shy away from the complexities of Ashman’s life, including his illness and death from AIDS in 1991.
The documentary does a fine job in showing how biographical elements of Ashman’s life were woven, intentionally or not, into much of his work. Themes of alienation, prejudice, and mortality can be inferred throughout The Litte Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, films all written and released at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
Beauty and the Beast’s “Mob Song” is a song about seeking a scapegoat, identifying a “degenerate” who deserves his fate, shunning him, and, ultimately, exterminating him.
“We don’t like what we don’t understand in fact it scares us
And this monster is mysterious at least
Bring your guns bring your knives,
Save your children and your wives
We’ll save our village and our lives
We’ll kill the Beast”Howard Ashman with BEAUTY’s Belle, Paige O’Hara. Photo courtesy Disney+
Ashman lived to see his work receive many awards, including an Academy Award. But his second Oscar, for the song, “Beauty and the Beast,” was awarded posthumously.
Ashman was keenly desirous of leaving a legacy, as all artists are. Howard reminds us of the immense loss of the art that “could have been,” while also celebrating the gifts that we are blessed to enjoy, however briefly. The greatest compliment I can give this film is that it made me want to immediately listen to the soundtracks of both his stage musicals and his Disney animated films. They are a wonder.
His legacy lives on.
From his never-released song, “Sheridan Square”:
“And if some good rises out of everything
Then the phoenix is rising there
In the eyes that are scared, but softer
Tonight on Sheridan Square.”