AND THE BAND PLAYED ON. (1993) DIRECTED BY JAMES SPOTTISWOODE. BASED ON THE NON-FICTION BOOK, AND THE BAND PLAYED ON: POLITICS, PEOPLE AND THE AIDS EPIDEMIC BY RANDY SHILTS. STARRING MATTHEW MODINE. REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. © This HBO made-for-television drama-based-on-real-events is an effective and chilling account of the AIDS story; how the disease first started turning up in scared gay males in the San Francisco area, then gradually amongst haemophiliacs and people recovering from surgery who had unknowingly been given contaminated blood products. The film focuses mainly on the doctors and scientists working flat out to discover the exact nature of the virus, because they can’t find a cure for it or devise a test for it until they find out what it is. It’s very similar to the way that COVID-19 suddenly appeared in China in 2020 and started killing people before spreading to the world at large and causing it to close down for virtually two years. The scientists got to work on it and, relatively quickly, established how it was spread, how we could avoid getting it, how we could test for it and, eventually, how we could vaccinate against it. COVID-19 affected people of all ages, skin colours, genders and nationalities. Everyone pulled together to find a cure and fight this awful disease. There was no stigma attached and no shame- well, not much; I heard there was some– in testing positive for it. It was just rotten bad luck and everyone wished you well. AIDS was a little different… Throughout the film we’re looking at now, it’s highlighted that the then Ronald Reagan administration was reluctant to release funds- funds urgently needed for defence!- to pay for research into a disease that was initially seen as a ‘gay plague,’ a ‘gay cancer’ or GRID; GAY-RELATED IMMUNE DISEASE. The Reagan administration is portrayed as unwilling to properly ‘see’ the gay community and acknowledge the devastation AIDS was causing amongst them. The God-Botherers had a field day with AIDS. It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, remember? Gay men had brought down the wrath of God on themselves for having sex with other men. AIDS was the price they had to pay. Why should anyone feel sorry for them? They brought it on themselves. By the way, anyone finding themselves short on compassion for AIDS sufferers need do no more than Google images for Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a terrible skin cancer that became widely associated with AIDS in the 1980’s. You wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy. The scientists in America seemed to be in competition with the scientists in France to find out what kind of virus they were dealing with. I’m not sure if all the fighting and arguing over who came up with it first and all the patent-pending stuff delayed the discovery and distribution of treatments and medicines, but it might well have done. And politicians argued with the activists and argued with each other over budgets and the wording of bills and whatnot and, in the meantime, hundreds of gay men died, sometimes agonisingly, sometimes alone, and always before their time. ‘I’m thirty-two years old and I’m dying…!’ And the band played on, in other words… There’s a super-famous cast that includes Matthew Modine as an epidemiologist who once worked on the Ebola virus in Africa and now spearheads the HIV/AIDS research for the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Ian McKellen plays a Gay Rights/AIDS activist and congressional aide who gets the virus. B.D. Wong plays his younger lover, Kico. Alan Alda portrays Dr. Bob Gallo, the main American scientific researcher fighting with the French scientists for ‘ownership’ of the virus. Musician Phil Collins plays the owner of one of the gay bath-houses that were all shut down when it was discovered that they probably contributed hugely to the spread of the virus. Other famous faces include Steve Martin in a straight role, as the brother of an AIDS victim who rigidly hid his gay persona from friends and family. Anjelica Huston, Lily Tomlin, Saul Rubinek, Swoosie Kurtz, Glenne Headly and Richard Masur also appear. My favourite cameo by far is by Richard Gere, an actor I don’t normally rate too highly, but he’s brilliant in this. He plays a handsome young choreographer who gets the virus. He’s in his doctor’s office, answering intimate questions about his sex life, and he looks out the window onto the street. The Gay Pride Halloween Parade is passing by. A figure dressed as the Grim Reaper, all in black with a skull face and complete with scythe, looks directly up at him before passing by. Richard Gere shivers and murmurs to himself: ‘Party’s over…’ I got chills all over. I also greatly admire the scenes with the gay French-Canadian flight attendant who was initially regarded as ‘Patient Zero’ for AIDS in the United States. He’s there in the doctor’s office, going, what’s all this AIDS stuff got to do with me, I’ve only got skin cancer, before adding that he couldn’t in a million years remember the names, never mind the addresses and telephone numbers, of all the men he’d slept with. Though he’s handsome and debonair and jauntily moustached, there’s something desperately, desperately sad about him. You know he’s going to be dead very soon. Bobbi Campbell, an AIDS activist and the 16 th person in San Francisco to be diagnosed with Kaposi’s Sarcoma, an early form of AIDS diagnosis, is another real-life tragic figure in the film. He talks so bravely about fighting the virus with everything he’s got, but a quick glance at Wikipedia reveals that he too died in 1984, the same year as our real-life flight attendant. Elton John sings his ‘The Last Song’ over real-life footage of a candlelight vigil and march in San Francisco, and then a montage of familiar and beloved faces, including Anthony Perkins, Rudolf Nureyev, Freddie Mercury, Brad Davis, Liberace, Magic Johnson, Rock Hudson, Halston, Denholm Elliott and Robert Reed. Other well-made AIDS films/dramas include AN EARLY FROST (1985), starring Aidan Quinn, and the drama mini-series INTIMATE CONTACT (1987), with Daniel Massey and Claire Bloom in the lead roles. Such a horrible disease, and so many victims robbed of life way too soon. So much courage in the face of a terrible adversity. We have various treatments now to lengthen life but still, I think, no cure. I don’t even know how to sign off today, so I’ll just say that I’ll see you when I see you. Mind yourselves and stay safe.
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Vampirology. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, women’s fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
Her debut romantic fiction novel, ‘THIRTEEN STOPS,’ is out now from Poolbeg Books:
The sequel, ‘THIRTEEN STOPS LATER,’ is out now from Poolbeg Books: