Compelling and affecting, this new Australian documentary reminds us of music's power to convey emotion and transcend pain.
The devastating impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic has been well documented by contemporary filmmakers. Documentaries such as Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Academy Award-winning Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989), David Weissman and Bill Weber’s deeply moving We Were Here (2011), and David France’s inspiring How to Survive a Plague (2012) have examined the stories of those lost to the virus; the nightmare experience of living at the plague’s ground zero; and the triumphs and challenges faced by activists fighting uncaring governments and overly-bureaucratic health services during one of the 20th century’s worst pandemics.
Australian filmmaker Rohan Spong’s All the Way Through Evening tells another side of the story. An understated and affecting low-budget documentary, it reminds us that a generation of artists were lost to AIDS in the early years of the pandemic. Some of them, such as Keith Haring, were already well known at the time of their deaths. Others, such as Australian playwright Timothy Conigrave, have found fame posthumously. But far too many more had barely begun to express themselves creatively when they succumbed to the ravages of the virus. We will never know what transcendent works they might have achieved, had they only had more time – but thanks to the remarkable work of New York concert pianist and activist Mimi Stern-Wolfe, some of the music created by those lost to AIDS will never be forgotten.
All the Way Through Evening documents Stern-Wolfe’s remarkable work and equally remarkable personality, in the lead up to the 2010 Benson AIDS Series concert, a celebration of the music of composers such as Kevin Oldham (1960-1993), Robert Chesley (1943-1993), Robert Savage (1951-1993) and Chris DeBlasio (1959-1993).
Much of the film is shot Mimi’s cramped and crowded apartment, where piles of scores and video tapes take up every inch of space, or on the streets of the Village, where she reminiscences about the friends she has lost to AIDS and the music they created.
‘I do these concerts for years and years because I knew the people that we lost and I cared for them and wanted to preserve the memory of their lives and their music and their talents. I wanted their legacy not to be forgotten by the current generation,’ Stern-Wolfe says.
Engaging, eccentric, and totally committed, Mimi Stern-Wolfe is clearly a hard woman to keep up with. ‘When you rehearse with Mimi, you have to have stamina,’ one of the interviewees notes wryly. Coupled with the music she performs, Stern-Wolfe is absolutely the heart and soul of the film. And what music it is. Accompanied by Mimi, helden tenor Gilles Denizot and counter tenor Marshall Coid give voice to all the pain and anguish of the AIDS epidemic - most notably in the film's final sequence, a performance of 'Walt Whitman in 1989', which imagines the great gay poet visiting an AIDS hospice in New York and comforting the young men he finds dying there.
Today, in the western world at least, AIDS is a chronic manageable condition thanks to advances in medical treatments. All the Way Through Evening reminds us that, especially in its early years, AIDS was a killer. One of the men interviewed in the film talks about writing down the names of the people he’d known who died from the disease, and giving up when his list reached 35 names. Spong’s documentary also reminds us of the bigotry and fear the epidemic unleashed, its targets men who were already often in mourning for friends and lovers they had lost. But most importantly, the film reminds us of the power of music to convey emotion and transcend pain.
Heartbreaking, charming, compelling and moving, All the Way Through Evening is an important film, and a beautiful one. Don’t miss it.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
All the Way Through Evening
Directed by Rohan Spong
Australia/USA, 2011, 70 mins
In limited national release from 29 November:
Cinema Nova (Melbourne)
Dendy Newtown (Sydney)
Palace Centro (Brisbane)
Mercury Cinema (Adelaide)
Dendy Canberra (Canberra)