You probably can’t even imagine a world in which Howard Ashman had never existed, and yet you probably don’t even know his name. He’s been dead nearly 30 years but you’re still singing his songs. Along with frequent collaborator Alan Menken, he wrote some of your favourite songs from The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin – and those are just his Disney creds.
The night they won the Oscar for their work on The Little Mermaid, Howard whispered in Menken’s ear that they should sit down and talk once they were back in New York. He revealed that he’d been diagnosed with HIV a couple of years earlier, when they were deep into production on The Little Mermaid. His health was failing. He’d be dead just a year later. But he spent that year putting whatever energy and time he had left into making Beauty and the Beast into one of if not the most memorable and beloved Disney fairytales of all time. The studio flew Disney animators out to his home in upstate New York to suit his schedule but his illness was largely kept secret – many in the crew assumed they were dealing the diva temperament of someone with an Oscar-shaped hunk of gold on the mantle. They put up with it because he was a genius, because the team of Ashman & Menken were basically unbeatable.
In this documentary, lots of his close friends and colleagues reminisce about how easily story-telling came to him, especially in song form. Lyrics spilled out of him, getting the story to where it needed to be. We also see him in archival footage, at the Beauty & The Beast recording session, for an example, where an orchestra played along to Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach laying down the track to that most famous of songs. Meanwhile, a separate team of animators already hard at work on Aladdin were picking his brain. He died before Belle ever set foot in a theatre, let alone Jasmine, but producer Don Hahn visited him in hospital after a particularly glowing test screening. Menken was down to 80lbs, was blind, and could hardly speak. This the man whose voice first sang the songs that princesses would later make famous. He died 4 days later. When Beauty & The Beast hit theatres later that year, it was dedicated to “our dear friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful.” Posthumously he would earn another four Academy Award nominations and rack up another win, but his legacy is much more than mere accolades. He was the voice of a generation, and his contributions are so timeless that they are rediscovered by each subsequent generation.
Howard’s friend, colleague, and Beauty & the Beast producer Don Hahn directs this documentary to say thanks to a man who is gone but clearly not forgotten.