And The Band Played On
The provenance of the title is obvious: in this film, the AIDS crisis and the lack of action from the Reagan administration is likened to the band playing on the Titanic as it sank. Itís a catchy title, but it seems to me that it entirely misses the point about this amazing film. The Titanic was going to sink whether the band played or not. AIDS, and the number of fatalities itís caused, was not inevitable. If the proper notice had been taken at the time and funding granted for research then the virus might have been identified many years earlier than it was.
This is a made for TV movie--but so what? Itís the most well researched and well-acted film Iíve seen for ages. Big names leant their support: Richard Gere, Alan Alda (he really needs to play evil more; heís very scary in this role), Ian McKellen and many, many more. It tells the detailed and intricate story of the first discovery of the ďgay plagueĒ and how a tiny, dedicated, under-funded team of doctors tried to isolate the virus and inform the political administration that there was a plague in American society.
But the scientific community arenít held up as entirely the white knights fighting the evil of the politicians. The movie handles the controversy between the two main labs and shows the avarice between the doctors who want to win Noble Prizes and file the patents for the AIDS vaccine.
When youíre reading gay fiction based in the 1970s and early 80s as we areóBrandstetter, Strachey, Harlanótheir stories will intertwine as you watch this. At one point, I found myself thinking that the man dying in hospital could be Dave, or Don or any of the other beautiful men in the books weíve read.
I held it together until the end, when over a track of Elton Johnís they ran picture after picture of people who have died of AIDS, some famous like Rock Hudson, some just babies in anonymous hospitals, dying of a disease given to them in the womb. I lost it at that point.
Do watch this movie. It fuelled my anger, which was already heated as today we have a new Pope. Yey. A man who openly condemns homosexuality and refuses to agree to the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS now has the spiritual care for over 1 billion of the worldís population.† Itís all madness. Perhaps we are on a sinking ship. Let the band play on.
Itís crazy that anyone could imagine a disease with sexual preference.† And downright evil to preach, like the Moral Majority, that gay men deserved the plague that decimated the community during the 80s and early 90s, as divine judgement.† This affecting movie, made for HBO in 1993, based on a book by Randy Shilts, chronicles the early years of the fight against the mystery disease with bewildering symptoms that began to kill gay men.
The efforts of scientists to identify and track the disease, to understand its cause and how to stop it spreading, were hampered by bureaucratic indifference, at the cost of many lives.† Scientists squabbled, some more concerned with personal glory than helping sick people, and dedicated people fought for essential funding to carry on their work.†
The story is a detective mystery, a dramatic race against time, battling homophobia and the nasty deviousness of the disease.† This is drama not documentary, with heroes and villains.† Matthew Modine plays Dr Don Francis, steadfast young researcher at the Centre For Disease Control.† Alan Alda the unscrupulous Dr Gallo prepared to sacrifice lives rather than admit French success.† The Reagan administration understandably takes a big hit, cutting back on health budgets to fund the defence industry, and those who put profits before public health when decisions were made about screening blood supplies, etc.† Culpability in the gay community is touched upon, with protests against closing bathhouses that were a major source of infection.† The emergence of AIDS followed 70s gay lib, sexual freedom and advances in equal rights.† Understandably they didnít want pushed back in the closet.
The picture that emerges isnít pretty.† No one was much interested in AIDS until haemophiliacs and heterosexuals began to die too.† Straight researchers couldnít understand the habit of casual anonymous sex that made tracking the disease hard.† The gay community divided between those who celebrated sexual freedom and others like the character played by Ian McKellan, fighting for acceptance and committed to monogamous relationships akin to hetero marriage. Fear, ignorance, moral judgements and blame.†
AIDS no longer kills in the developed West, though patients need a potent cocktail of drugs with severe side effects, unknown consequences of longterm use, and recent warning of drug resistant strains.† A younger generation lacks understanding of the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS, questioning the necessity for safe sex.†† There are AIDS parties, like mothers who expose their children to common illnesses like measles.† The horrific situation in Africa fulfils the direst predictions for spread of the disease in the panic days of the 80s.†† The film is educational and informative.† Essential viewing to understand this tragedy that has been the backdrop for many of the books/films reviewed here.
The film has dated, but its powerful message resonates, with SARS, fear of future pandemics, and what needs to be done now to stop them.† Throughout the movie we see a relentlessly rising toll of cases and deaths, the Butcherís Bill.† The AIDS crisis neednít have happened as it did, and the film explains why.† A cautionary tale that made me angry and it made me cry.† Though I donít like the way it gives the impression of gay men as helpless victims, needing rescue by straight heroes like Francis.† So I see where James Robert Baker was coming from in Tim & Pete.† Harrowing and haunting, but recommended viewing.†
Buy And the Band Played On (REGION 1) (NTSC) from Amazon