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Howard review: Moving documentary on Disney song-writing genius who died far too young

Absorbing documentary charts the brief life and great work of composer Howard Ashman, whose songs would long outlast him

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Howard Ashman wrote some of Disney’s greatest hits

Howard Ashman wrote some of Disney’s greatest hits

Howard Ashman with Paige O’Hara during the recordings for Beauty And The Beast

Howard Ashman with Paige O’Hara during the recordings for Beauty And The Beast

Lisa Loven Kongsli in 'Giraffe'

Lisa Loven Kongsli in 'Giraffe'

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Howard Ashman wrote some of Disney’s greatest hits

Hard times for Disney, which estimates it has lost a cool $4.7bn in the three months to June 27 as a result of delayed film releases and closed theme parks. The one bright spot has been the performance of the company's streaming service Disney+, launched in the US last November, here in March, and already boasts more than 60 million subscribers.

Most are attracted to the site's formidable back catalogue of classic animations and family movies, as well as the Star Wars and Marvel franchises. But to date, new releases have been thin on the ground.

All that will change in September, as Disney has announced that what was to be its big summer blockbuster, Mulan, will now be launched exclusively on the streaming site. Meanwhile, there are other treats to entertain us, like Beyoncé's typically modest and understated 'visual album' Black Is King, and Howard, a quieter, but very absorbing, documentary film about a song-writing genius who died far too young.

When Disney began releasing (ad nauseam) live action versions of classic animations like Aladdin and Beauty And The Beast, what struck me immediately was the quality of the songs. 'Under The Sea', 'Belle', 'Friend Like Me' and 'Be Our Guest' were good enough to grace a classic Broadway show, and that's no coincidence because the man who created them started out in the rough-and-tumble world of theatrical musicals. Howard Ashman flourished and failed on Broadway before finding his home, as he put it, with Disney, and Don Hahn's documentary does his story justice. It's a fascinating one.

Born in Baltimore in 1950, Ashman was drawn to storytelling from the start. His younger sister recalls him using dolls and toy soldiers to tell fairy tales in their room, and putting on elaborate shows for the local kids in the back garden. His mother had been a semi-professional singer and Howard could sing, dance and act, but by the time he went to college, he'd realised song-writing and musicals were his true love.

In 1977, Howard moved to New York City, then a "scary, dirty place", as he puts it, but charged with "creative energy". Against all sound advice, he and his then boyfriend Stuart White set up the WPA, a 99-seat "hole-in-the-wall theatre" where they staged experimental plays and shows. In 1979, he and his regular collaborator Alan Menken adapted Kurt Vonnegut's novel God Bless You, Mr Rosewater into a witty and critically acclaimed musical. It received the approval of Vonnegut himself, and they followed it in 1982 with Little Shop Of Horrors, a wonderfully anarchic update of the 1960 Roger Corman film, which Frank Oz later made into a successful movie starring Steve Martin.

Howard's talent and ear for a funny lyric were obvious, but a couple of wantonly cruel reviews in The New York Times put him off Broadway for good, and when Disney's wily boss Jeffrey Katzenberg invited Ashman to come to Burbank and work on an ambitious new series of animated films the studio was planning, he said yes.

Howard ended up in a trailer on a parking lot, miles from the fabled Disney studio, where the animation division was now based. But he loved working with the artists and animators, and quickly realised the freedom his new role would give him. "One of the last great places to do a Broadway musical is in animation," he would say later, and at Disney, Ashman was given the space to create some truly memorable cinematic moments.

In Howard, we hear about the battle he had with Katzenberg and others over The Little Mermaid song 'Part Of Your World', which the suits hated and wanted to axe after kids became skittish during test screenings. Howard stood his ground and the song became one of the most memorable moments in a very successful film.

Sadly, Ashman never got to see the finished films Aladdin and Beauty And The Beast: in 1988, he'd been diagnosed with Aids, which was then effectively a death sentence, and despite an aggressive course of treatment, Howard died on March 14, 1991, at the age of just 40. He'd been working on songs virtually till the end, receiving respectful visits from Disney creatives who flew to New York to catch the last drops of his musical genius.

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His sister, Sarah, his long-time partner Bill Lauch, and various friends and collaborators from stage and film, remember him fondly, affectionately but not uncritically, in this well-constructed documentary. But the most moving moments show Howard in full flow, conducting the great Broadway actors Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach and a full orchestra in wonderfully stirring sessions for Beauty And The Beast, a fabulous animation that contains perhaps his finest songs.

Howard

(Disney+, 94mins)

★★★★


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Lisa Loven Kongsli in 'Giraffe'

Lisa Loven Kongsli in 'Giraffe'

Lisa Loven Kongsli in 'Giraffe'

Last year, Boris Johnson raised the ghastly notion of building a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland that would effectively end our island status. He is now otherwise preoccupied, but in Anna Sofie Hartmann's wistful and ruminative drama, a Danish woman confronts a similar scenario.

Lolland, Denmark's fourth largest island, sits in splendid isolation in the western Baltic, but after a plan is announced to build a tunnel connecting it with mainland Germany, Dara (Lisa Loven Kongsli) returns to the island from Berlin to record a way of life that's about to change forever. She travels Lolland's rolling plains, talking to appalled farmers and country folk: some of them are non-actors telling their own stories, and Hartmann's camera lingers on their faces, capturing emotions that are real.

Dara also meets immigrants from Poland, whose dreams of a better life in Scandinavia have been compromised by prejudice and hardship. Hartmann's film opens with shots of giraffes grazing, forever displaced in Lolland's safari park, a metaphor perhaps for the inevitability of upheaval, change and loss. PW

Giraffe

(Mubi, 88mins)

★★★★


A terse, odd, ingenious little film, Runar Runarsson's Echo forms a frank and vivid account of contemporary Iceland. His film consists of a series of underplayed vignettes, which provide snapshots of life in all its guises, rich and poor, young and old, sick and well. These scenes are brief, and all the more affecting for it.

It's Christmas, and while snow and ice hold sway outside, the hardy Icelanders do their best to remain cheerful within. It's not always easy. A baby in a car seat cries while its mother de-ices the car; a farmhouse burns brightly while neighbours discuss house prices; a blonde girl plays Schubert on the piano in a plush home; in a poorer household, an argument brews over how to cook the Christmas fish.

In the grimmest, funniest scene, a funeral director preparing a child's coffin answers his phone and says: "Hello sunshine!" A recurring theme is the Icelanders' bluff stoicism in the face of sickness, hardship, death. While visiting a graveyard, a grandmother says to her grandchild: "I'll die, then your mother will die and then you'll die." Ok then! PW

Echo

(Mubi, 76mins)

★★★★


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