Amidst all this talk of the ‘Disney Renaissance,’ I find myself thinking back through everything that makes that particular string of films memorable. Truth be told, there are many aspects, but one that still endures in the memories of everyone who grew up watching these films is the music.
Ever since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs music has been a big part of Disney’s animated output, who can forget the titular Dwarfs tottering off to work to the tune of ‘Heigh-Ho’? Or Jiminy Cricket telling us what happens ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ in Pinocchio? Disney has always liked to have marketable songs in their big features, but the Renaissance is the era most associated with its music because of its string of masterful soundtracks.
Right from the start, the era had memorable earworms, The Little Mermaid is chock full of them. Whether you prefer ‘Part of Your World’, ‘Kiss the Girl’ or ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’ there’s a song in there that you’ll walk away humming for the next few days.
These early soundtracks were the works of two men who had cut their teeth in Off-Broadway theatre, previously writing cult hit Little Shop of Horrors together. One of which was Alan Menken, whose name is forever entwined with the House of Mouse, having written many soundtracks for their films, and being rewarded with eight Academy Awards for his work, and the other is a much more tragic tale, and the focus of this documentary, Howard Ashman.
Ashman worked as a lyricist with Menken for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin all three of which would bring him an Oscar nomination (with two wins for Mermaid, and Beauty, respectively) but sadly, he wouldn’t live to see most of the acclaim his work would earn, as he passed away in March of 1991 of AIDS-related complications.
The documentary then is both a look at the sheer brilliance of his work, and at the struggle towards the end of his life to carry on his work, while trying to hide his illness from his employers and most of his friends.
It’s an incredibly poignant film about the life of a man whose potential was as endless as his life was cruelly short; the story of a man cut down when he was just really hitting his stride.
Hearing his colleagues and friends describe his work and energy you get the feeling that Disney, musical theatre, and the world as a whole really lost a special talent when Howard Ashman died, and that his impact is still felt to this day, especially as the films he once helped score are now being re-imagined, introducing a whole new generation to his work.
There is a line in the film about how enduring his legacy through music will be, and thanks to services like Disney+ this is true now more than ever. Menken and Ashman’s words and music were the soundtracks to many a childhood, and the saddest fact of that is that Howard himself didn’t get to see that.
Rather than utilising the ‘talking heads’ format of documentary, this film instead opts for voices over archive footage, showing some of Howard’s work, even integrating his own voice to fully contextualise what is going on. It also makes the film so much more poignant when you see him at work, directing the actors singing his wonderful words, knowing how close he was to death, it shows more of his passion and determination than any second-person account could.
It, of course, has the advantage of having a plethora of behind-the-scenes footage to help tell its story, being made for Disney’s streaming service, it makes use of the footage filmed at various recording and storyboarding sessions, helping us to understand the influence Howard had on the productions he worked on, even outside of the recording studio, his suggestions helped make these films so memorable.
The most touching moments of the film for me were the testimonies from his songwriting partner Alan Menken, there are more personal accounts from people closer to the man in his private life, but you feel just how important they were to each other work in how Alan explains their dynamic, and hearing his voice start to break when talking about his friend has a deep emotional impact on the audience.
I only had very vague knowledge of Howard Ashman before watching this film, but have always had an affinity for his words, and now, after seeing the film, I think I can start to understand him, and how his work continues to affect people to this day.
There’s an interesting angle to this in how he had to keep his sexuality and illness secret from Disney for fears he may lose his job, a reality that many people faced in the late 80s-early 90s, and its not a point that Disney shies away from in its presentation. It’s very sad that a man facing his mortality also had to contend with these thoughts, and it’s handled very maturely.
I’ve always said that the best documentaries can take the story of a person who you may not be familiar with, and make it feel like you know them afterwards. They take you on a journey through their life, not just focusing on their work, but how their work affected them and those closest to them, and Howard does this extremely well.
It manages to be both heartbreaking and joyful, it’s a celebration of his life while mourning his death. We mourn what might have been, but we celebrate what we have, and that’s the key story behind Howard. How one man can manage to shape an entire generations childhood through songs alone and meet a tragic and untimely death before he could achieve even a quarter of what he was capable of. This is a must-watch for any Disney+ subscriber.