Decades on, particularly for those of us living relatively privileged lives in the West, the horror wrought by the AIDS pandemic seems to be a thing of the past. Memories of Liz
Taylor and red ribbons seem very much part of a previous century for most of us, and much of the fear associated with the disease softened through complacence.
In a post-AZT world, where the syndrome has found ways of being medically managed, and the likes of Magic Johnson show that the debilitation wrought by the affliction can be sidestepped, the entire issue of HIV/AIDS has become for many simply background noise, some blood-borne transmissible disease with clear ways of avoiding its reach with a few minor safeguards.
When the mysterious, deadly symptoms first hit, and the disease caused deaths in near plague-like proportions, it proved to be particularly devastating to the Gay community. Back then, the diagnosis was often a death sentence, and an entire generation of men, many of whom were vibrant and creative artists, were killed in their prime.
Mimi Stern-Wolfe is a survivor of that period, a frumpy woman with a big smile, one of those old kvetchy women you see stumbling through the streets of lower Manhattan. For decades now, she and a few of her friends have put on an annual concert that seems part memorial service, part celebration of the life and works of many of those that were lost.
Starting in 1990, this "Benson AIDS Series" concert (the delightfully kitschy site can be found here) has highlighted contemporary "classical" works, from operettas to chamber pieces, often with Stern-Wolfe at the piano. The pieces are often haunting and forlorn, indicative of being crafted by those who knew of their own impending demise. Even at their most uplifting, there's a solemnity about many of the songs, lyrics that speak of struggles, hardships and grasping at the elusive.
The documentary All The Way Through Evening by Rohan Spong is a touching if slightly pedantic love letter to Stern-Wolfe's inexhaustible drive to commemorate the lost. Rated as a documentary, it feels slightly off, as if the filmmaker is unsure just how to treat the subject. Part concert performance, part behind-the-scenes, with plenty of talking head interviews scattered throughout, the film does a workmanlike if generally unremarkable survey of the show, its history, and the colourful characters that have shaped the concert series.
Naturally, however, it's the remarkable subject matter that does much of the heavy lifting here, and despite its prosaic structure, this is very much something that deserves to be recorded for posterity. Much like the battered VHS tapes that are seen scattered throughout Mimi's cluttered apartment, the presentation isn't quite up to par, but the content is near priceless.
There's a mix both of reverie and requiem throughout the film, a recognition of a time long gone by (which, frankly, makes me feel more than a bit old myself, the 80s still a searing memory for me). It's clear that the seemingly unstoppable Ms. Mimi is herself slowing down, the "mountains" she talks of becoming just a bit harder to climb. The film ends questioning just who could play such an integral role in keeping the memories alive, and if anything the film will serve to bring international attention both to the events Stern-Wolfe produces, as well as the many artists that she showcases.
As a film, there's not much to celebrate here, it's about as engaging formally as a lesser-ran made-for-TV special or DVD extra, the narrative never quite gelling, the music performances never quite captured with the nuance and engagement that would be desirable. Nonetheless, it's such a critical story of such an interesting character that the work is nonetheless recommended, providing a look at a truly remarkable woman and the friends she gathers around her each year in order to make her way All The Way Through Evening.