‘Howard,’ about the genius life and tragic death of Disney lyricist Howard Ashman, to open Aspen Filmfest | AspenTimes.com

‘Howard,’ about the genius life and tragic death of Disney lyricist Howard Ashman, to open Aspen Filmfest

You may not know the name Howard Ashman. But you certainly know his work, which includes the iconic songs from "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin."

A genius of song and storytelling, Ashman won Oscars, Grammy Awards and Golden Globes and launched a modern renaissance of animated musicals. But he died of AIDS at 40 before he could see the effect his work had on the world.

Ashman's story has gone largely untold since his untimely death in 1991.

His friend and collaborator, the veteran Disney producer Don Hahn, is changing that with his new documentary, "Howard," which will open the 2019 Aspen Filmfest on Tuesday.

"I thought enough time had passed to tell the story and put Howard front and center," Hahn said in a recent phone interview.

The film offers a personal portrait of an uncompromising and uncommonly gifted artist. Filled with archival footage of Disney recording sessions and recollections of friends, family and collaborators, "Howard" makes a case for Ashman as one of the great storytellers of his time and underscores the tragedy of the promising lives cut short by the AIDS crisis.

"I want the film to be for an audience that will embrace the Disney side of it, certainly, but also an audience that will see how Howard fit into the era and in this difficult time for gay men and people suffering from HIV and AIDS," Hahn said.

A Baltimore native, Ashman began writing musicals as a teenager. His Off-Off-Broadway adaptation of "Little Shop of Horrors," opening in 1982, became an unlikely smash that catapulted him to fame and led to his first film work on the screenplay for the movie version. After his follow-up musical, "Smile," flopped on Broadway, Ashman went to Hollywood to work for Disney.

There, he teamed with Alan Menken to write the songs for "The Little Mermaid," which won him an Oscar, a Golden Globe and two Grammy Awards. That breakout success coincided with his AIDS diagnosis. He attempted to keep the disease a secret, and as it decimated him he wrote timeless songs for "Aladdin" and "Beauty and the Beast," though he died before he could see the films on screen.

The production of "Beauty and the Beast" had stumbled out of the gates, as the creative team at Disney struggled with the material. They tapped Ashman to save it.

"It was obvious that he was more than a lyricist," Hahn recalled. "He was a writer, a director — the only person I can think of today who is anything like him as an all-encompassing storyteller is Lin-Manuel Miranda."

"Howard" is Hahn's third feature-length documentary, following "Waking Sleeping Beauty," about the rebirth of Disney animation in the late 1980s, and "Hand Held," about photojournalist Mike Carroll and the pediatric AIDS crisis in Eastern Europe. "Howard" premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. Hahn said he is close to signing a deal for international distribution that will bring the documentary to a wide global audience.

Hahn wanted to tell the story in Ashman's voice, through archival footage and demo tapes to put the audience in the room with Ashman to witness his creative genius.

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"When you have one of the greatest storytellers of the 20th century, why not use him to tell his own story?" Hahn said.

Hahn's search for footage sent him to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and into old Disney files and Broadway production offices. The film includes gems like early demo recordings made on answering machine tapes and footage of Ashman conducting the recording sessions with the cast of "Beauty and the Beast."

"It was a real treasure hunt," Hahn said. "You think it's not that long ago, but the '80s are kind of a black hole of media. It's all VHS-quality tape or photos that aren't that great — so it's a challenge to find the kind of clips that can tell a story."

Hahn, who is currently working on the much-anticipated live action remake of "The Lion King," will be on hand Tuesday for a post-screening discussion. And on Wednesday morning, he will take Filmfest behind the scenes for a multimedia presentation detailing how a Disney classic gets made, discussing his experiences producing films like "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King."

"It's kind of like a live DVD bonus commentary, right there in the theater," he said of his "Behind the Magic" presentation.

atravers@aspentimes.com

IF YOU GO …

What: ‘Howard’ at Aspen Filmfest

Where: Isis Theatre

When: Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2:30 p.m.

How much: $20 ($15 for Aspen Film members)

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; aspenshowtix.com

More info: Tuesday’s screening will be followed by a Q&A with director Don Hahn. Filmfest screenings Tuesday also include “Cold War” (5:30 p.m.), Filmest’s opening night reception (7 p.m.) and Widows (8:15 p.m.); aspenfilm.org

*

What: Behind the Magic with Don Hahn

Where: Wheeler Opera House Lobby

When: Wednesday, Sept. 26, 10:30 a.m.

How much: $20 (Free for Aspen Film members)

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; aspenshowtix.com