Tuesday, August 11, 2020
Doc Watch: Howard (2018)
Director: Don Hahn
Let me start by saying: in a lot of ways Disney+ is much better than I ever expected. I've enjoyed the Disney "from the vaults" content, catching new material, behind the scenes at parks, movies, etc... with One Day at Disney and two series - one on the making of The Mandalorian and an exceptional doc series on the making of Frozen 2.
And, of course, then the release of Hamilton. I haven't watched Black is King yet, but that's a pretty big line in the sand for the Disney brand to put out on their flagship, no-doubt-this-is-Disney streaming service when Disney has usually just avoided anything that invites cultural critique.*
But Disney+ putting a doc about Howard Ashman, a gay man who died of complications from AIDs at the height of the epidemic, and being honest and open about his sexuality and struggle with the disease, is... kind of mind-blowing. There's something about the platform of their own streaming service and that you've already paid your money to have it that seems to have freed up the Disney Corp to tell some stories well worth telling I don't know we'd see if they didn't have this avenue.
The doc, itself, is the life story of Howard Ashman who - paired with Alan Menken - wrote the musical numbers for Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. He also wrote and originally produced Little Shop of Horrors - which was his big breakout hit off-Broadway.
It's really a pretty great story, well told, and has the heart-breaking knowledge of what happened to Ashman in the back of your head. And, sadly, the fact he was the musical partner of Menken and that he died of AIDS was all I'd known about him until watching the doc.
I don't want to get into details too much, but as loving as it is, it isn't shy about who Howard Ashman was and doesn't make him into a saint - while illustrating pretty clearly what sort of mind he had that helped push the Disney cartoon back into prestige territory (and why Disney was flailing at the time he showed up).
For fans of animation, musical theater, or Disney-history - well worth the viewing.
*Disney tends to get lambasted no matter what they do, and I've stood there and listened to lines of people parrot back the criticisms of Aladdin, Lion King and Little Mermaid during 3 summers at The Disney Store. I would invariably listen and then say "well, I make $4.50 an hour working here and while I'll tell my manager... really, your best bet is writing the studio in California."