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Review Roundup: What Did Critics Think of the Howard Ashman Documentary on Disney+?

The documentary debuts on the streamer August 7.

By: Aug. 05, 2020
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Review Roundup: What Did Critics Think of the Howard Ashman Documentary on Disney+?  Image

Disney+ is set to release the documentary Howard, the story of lyricist Howard Ashman, on August 7.

Directed by Don Hahn ("Beauty and the Beast"), "Howard" is THE UNTOLD STORY of Howard Ashman, the brilliant lyricist behind Disney classics like "Aladdin," "Beauty and the Beast," "The Little Mermaid" and creator of musicals including "Little Shop of Horrors." Featuring never-before-seen archival footage, personal films and photographs, as well as interviews with Howard's friends and family, the film is an intimate look at the Disney Legend's life, his creative drive, and the process behind the music. Spanning his childhood in Baltimore, to his formative years in New York, and his untimely death due to AIDS, "Howard" goes in-depth to explore his journey to become the lyricist behind some of the most beloved and well-known classic family films in the world.

Find out what critics thought of the documentary below!

Daniel D'Addario, Variety:

At 94 minutes, "Howard" is not and does not try to be a plumbing search through the generation of talent lost to HIV and AIDS; what it is trying to do, appealingly narrowly, is illuminate one life and the work done therein. We see Howard's gifts as a lyricist as he instructs performers precisely how to phrase his carefully-chosen words. We see his impact on the culture, as Lauch picks up an Oscar Ashman won after his death. (Just this past month, Ashman's writing partner Alan Menken won the Emmy that completed his "EGOT," raising the question of just how high remained for Ashman to fly, had he not been prematurely taken.) Most moving of all to viewers of a certain cast of mind, we see his encyclopedic knowledge of his own tradition, as in an archival interview where he describes "Little Shop of Horrors," the musical for which he wrote the book and lyrics, as "the 'Dames at Sea' of horror movies." Many children live in fantasy worlds of their making; few grow up to bring them to bear on quite so grand a stage.

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone:

Such blunt honesty and rare introspection sets Howard apart from the usual cut-and-paste trips down memory lane. The film grows intensely moving as Ashman, unable to climb steps, loses his strength and sequesters himself for intravenous treatments. He ends up hiding out from the world that he, like his little mermaid, has always longed to be a part of. Next time you hear that song - "Up where they walk/Up where they run/Up where they stay all day in the sun/Wanderin' free/Wish I could be/Part of that world" - think of Ashman and the talent he showed that, as Lauch tell us, was "just the tip of the iceberg." It's hard to argue.

Drew Taylor, Collider:

Now, Hahn has taken Ashman's story and turned it into an entire documentary feature. And Howard, available later this week on Disney+, is powerful and profound. Through conversations with colleagues and family members, archival footage, and clips from his various projects, the fullness of his life is rendered beautifully, with complexity, texture and detail. And yes, you will probably cry. A lot.

Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian:

It's moving to see Ashman rehearsing his song Part of Your World from The Little Mermaid, and to see how it relates to his own unforgotten childhood when he yearned to be part of the magical world of show business. Ashman set a standard of flair, invention and Broadway-style showmanship in Disney lyrics that continues to this day.

Caroline Siede, AV Club:

For both musical theater fans and Disney aficionados, Howard is a must-see. Hahn bookends the film with extensive footage from the recording session for Beauty And The Beast, in which Ashman watches with a critical eye as Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach perform "Be Our Guest." But even for those outside of the Disney musical demographic, Howard is a moving portrait of an artist taken too soon during an era tragically marked by those kind of losses.

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune:

"Howard" director Don Hahn worked with Ashman on "Beauty and the Beast," and he interpolates a fair amount of Disney rehearsal footage and interview snippets from the earlier and illuminating Disney-sanctioned documentary, "Waking Sleeping Beauty." Hahn and company handle the rougher edges and volatile contradictions of Ashman's life and personality with discretion bordering occasionally on blandness. Speaking of which: "Howard" ends with a montage of Ashman's Disney influence, including footage of the billion-dollar-grossing live-action remakes of "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin." Yeah, well. Money isn't everything.

Frank Scheck, The Hollywood Reporter:

Paying suitable tribute without resorting to hagiography, Howard provides a thoughtful, warts-and-all profile of its subject. It succeeds beautifully in inducing both joy and sorrow: joy at the remarkable work Ashman produced, and sorrow that he left us so early and deprived us of the talent that still had so much to give.

Jeannette Catsoulis, The New York Times:

Drawing entirely from abundant period footage - cassette tapes of interviews and song demos, home movies, film of Ashman at work in recording sessions and writing rooms - Hahn steers clear of talking heads. Friends and family and collaborators speak mostly off-camera, their voices a gentle undercurrent to the lyrics that dance across the screen.

Corinne Reichert, CNET:

Howard features evocative footage of Ashman working on so many instantly recognizable songs. The film includes Jodi Benson's audition as the voice of Ariel in The Little Mermaid; Ashman giving directions to Paige O'Hara, who voices Belle in Beauty and the Beast; and the recording of Be Our Guest with Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury. His story also unfolds through interviews with Ashman's husband Bill Lauch, family, friends, classmates, actors and Disney music partner Alan Menken.

Petrana Radulovic, Polygon:

It's a bittersweet portrait of Ashman that doesn't elevate his time at Disney over the rest of his career. While it's a touching look at Ashman's entire life, it feels a bit restrained when actually discussing his continued legacy at the studio. But it does effectively address who he was outside his work.

Brian Lowry, CNN:

"Howard" serves as a fitting celebration of that life and career. It's a chance for those who knew him to pause and fondly look back, in a way that merely adds to an appreciation of the parade that he helped start.

Brooke Bajgrowicz, Mashable:

Photographs, recordings, and archival footage give the narrative a nostalgic feel. And, naturally, the music Ashman wrote - as it is featured - does the same. It's thrilling to watch Howard give voice actors specific instructions on how to perform a now well-known song. It's exciting to hear the orchestra bring life to his vision. And it's enlightening to see his lyrics scroll down the screen in time with the songs they're from. Because Ashman's rhymes have a definably tongue-in-cheek quality, this feature helps audiences visualize the density of Howard's writing and proves his wit in the process.

Jo-Anne Rowney, Radio Times:

What's so striking about Howard is it doesn't rush to the Disney days, it takes its time showing Ashman's early life, his charisma as he starts out his career, his early successes, so much so you feel every high and low with him, from the big breaks to the bad reviews.


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