There’s something exciting about a film that immerses you in the life of a creative artist, and so it proves with this documentary about Howard Ashman. He was the fiercely talented lyricist and musical-theatre wizard who ran his own off-off-Broadway producing venue in the 70s, turned Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors into a mainstream stage smash, got signed up by Disney for animations such as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast and, sadly, became the first person with Aids to get an Oscar (posthumously).
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.
Where I disagree (heretically) with the film is suspecting that Disney wasn’t necessarily a great career move for Ashman. Until he went to California to work in animation, Ashman was a live-theatre guy who had a punky masterpiece with Little Shop of Horrors and a body of very highly regarded, challenging work. But he had a bruising flop with his Broadway musical version of the Miss America pageant movie Smile in 1986, co-written with Marvin Hamlisch, which might have soured him on the live stage.
The film quotes Ashman saying that “the last great place to do Broadway musicals is animation”. Maybe. Certainly, Disney offered a comparatively risk-free world, more so than rolling the dice on a Broadway show that could be killed by a single snarky New York Times review. Who could blame Ashman for choosing the bulletproof world of Disney? But what if Smile had worked out? Could Ashman have developed on the path of mature projects on Broadway? Could he maybe have addressed the Aids crisis head-on? And might not that have been more interesting than The Little Mermaid etc? A sacrilegious thought.
• Howard is on Disney+ from 7 August.