Prolific documentary filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz’s (Vito, I Am Divine) latest feature, Commitment to Life, valuably adds more threads to the tapestry of our understanding of the height of the AIDS crisis in the United States by focusing on Los Angeles and the entertainment industry, in particular the work of the AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA).
On film, the US response to AIDS is usually framed around the nation’s two queer capitals, New York and San Francisco, but Commitment to Life primarily draws attention to the way that the APLA motivated action within Los Angeles’ film and television community at a time when actors and executives were almost exclusively closeted.
Highlighting the work of celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor, Alison Arngrim, Bette Midler, Joan Rivers, and Madonna, plus media mogul David Geffen, the film offers an interesting peek into the fears and outrage within the entertainment community, nicely complementing the recent Rock Hudson documentary All That Heaven Allowed and Schwarz’s own Tab Hunter Confidential. Schwarz also chronicles a timeline of AIDS on screen, from the early, flawed storylines, the art-house response, and Tom Hanks’ eventual Oscar-winning performance in Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia.
Of course Los Angeles is more than just Hollywood, and Commitment to Life spends time showcasing the effect that the height of the AIDS crisis had on the multicultural city, with each community having to find its own way to communicate. There are some fascinating moments with Jewel Thais-Williams who was the first Black woman to run a disco in the country, Jewel’s Catch One (the subject of C. Fitz’s excellent 2016 documentary). While Queer Eye’s Karamo Brown points out how the cis white world of gay West Hollywood often excluded people of colour, as explored in Marc Saltarelli’s recent Studio One Forever.
As the film unfolded, I felt pride in how our community rallied together in the face of social and political adversity. As we confront a new era of rabid bigotry, it feels good to be reminded that we have come through these attacks before by sticking together, creating safe spaces, and marching arm in arm.
Commitment to Life does us all a favour by committing these stories and memories to film. Although there is still scope for another feature to be made that delves even further into Hollywood’s response to AIDS by interviewing surviving key players, this film serves as a vital document commemorating the essential work of the APLA and LA’s community response to the height of the AIDS crisis.
By Chad Armstrong
Commitment to Life premiered at the 2023 Santa Barbara International Film Festival and will receive its international premiere at the 2023 Queer Screen Film Festival in Sydney, Australia on Sunday 27 August, 2023. Click here for tickets and more information.