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And the Band Played on (1993) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

aids cdc disease gay

Principal social themes: AIDS, homosexuality

HBO. PG rating. Featuring: Matthew Modine, Alan Alda, Patrick Bauchau, Nathalie Baye, Ian McKellen, Charles Martin Smith, Richard Gere, Anjelica Huston, David Dukes, Alex Courtney, David Marshall Grant, Stephen Spinella, Lily Tomlin, Swoosie Kurtz, Bud Cort, Phil Collins, Christian Clemenson, David Clennon, Ronald Guttman, Ken Jenkins, Tcheky Karyo, Jeffrey Nordling, Jack Laufer, Donal Logue, Richard Masur, Dakin Mathews, Saul Rubinek, Peter McRobbie, Glenne Headly, B. D. Wong, Steve Martin. Written by Arnold Schulman based on the book by Randy Shilts. Cinematography by Paul Elliott. Edited by Lois Freeman-Fox. Music by Carter Burwell. Produced by Midge Sanford, Sarah Pillsbury, and Aaron Spelling (executive). Directed by Roger Spottiswoode. Color. 155 minutes (original version); 142 minutes (revised version).


Randy Shilts’ book And the Band Played On was the first critical study of the development of the AIDS epidemic. Insightful, detailed, and passionately argued, the book generated tremendous interest as well as a number of controversies, particularly with sections of the text that appeared to be critical of some segments of the gay community. HBO decided to turn the book into a docudrama, fictionalizing some characters and having actors portray a number of figures involved in the story. The screenplay also edits in clips of actual news reports and documentary footage of a number of authentic events, such as a moving, candlelight memorial procession in San Francisco. And the Band Played On debuted on cable television in a longer version that was later edited down and released to other networks and on home video. It also had a number of theatrical bookings, especially in foreign markets.


And the Band Played On unfolds its story on two levels, first in traditional terms as seen through the eyes of a central protagonist, Dr. Don Francis, a scientist working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, and then through a series of short dramatized scenes blended with news clips that illustrate the evolution of the epidemic. The picture actually begins with a brief flashback from 1976, showing his experiences in Africa with a deadly ebola outbreak, a medical catastrophe that had been contained. In 1980, a few isolated cases of immune system failure among homosexual men in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles come to the attention of the CDC. Progress is painstakingly slow in gathering information and identifying the characteristics of this new disease, referred to only as “gay cancer” in the homosexual community. The regular media ignores the disease completely, but the number of cases continues to expand at an alarming rate. Overworked and poorly equipped, researches at the CDC begin to make several conclusions. The disease is sexually transmitted, has a long incubation period, and may be a retrovirus. Dr. Robert Gallo, a controversial figure and an expert on human retroviruses, is enlisted to study this possible connection. Dr. Francis develops the theory of “Patient Zero” based on a promiscuous gay flight attendant whose sexual activities might have helped to spread the disease to countless individuals. An attempt to close the bathhouses of San Francisco, which many members of the gay community fear is a direct assault on their lifestyle, fails. In January 1983, the CDC has a workshop that finally gives the disease a name, AIDS, for “acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.” AIDS has begun to spread beyond the gay community and is now being publicized in the media. The CDC is concerned that the nation’s blood supply might become contaminated from donors with AIDS, but blood bank executives resist any new guidelines to test and monitor the nation’s blood supply. Another obstacle occurs because of the rivalry between researchers at the Pasteur Institute in Paris and Dr. Gallo’s group, who make rival claims about isolating and identifying the AIDS virus. This threatens to delay progress by tying the matter up in court. Gallo blames Dr. Francis for helping the French researchers and limits his cooperation with the CDC. Once the virus is identified, Dr. Francis proposes a phase two plan for prevention, education, and cure. His request is forwarded to Washington by Dr. Curran, his superior, but his report is turned down as too expensive. Frustrated, Dr. Francis asks for a transfer from the main CDC lab to work directly on the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. When he arrives on the West Coast, he goes to the hospital to visit Bill Kraus, a long-time gay activist and safe-sex advocate, who is dying from the disease. It is an emotional leave-taking, and the film concludes with Elton John singing “The Last Song,” as a lengthy montage shows major celebrities who died from AIDS—Rock Hudson, Liberace, Arthur Ashe, Amanda Blake, and Anthony Perkins—as well as numerous other victims from all walks of life, including young Ryan White. A series of end title cards discusses the fate of various individuals portrayed in the picture. The final card reveals that as of 1993, forty million people worldwide have been infected with AIDS.


And the Band Played On is a remarkable, powerful, and unique accomplishment, although the script did blunt some of Stilts’ sharper criticisms of segments of the gay liberation movement. The major flaw in the production is the strident criticism of President Ronald Reagan. On the other hand, much of the other sentiments of the screenplay are successful and ring true. The best part of the picture is the camaraderie of the members of the CDC research team. Charles Martin Smith is memorable as Harold Jaffe, the research expert on sexually transmitted diseases. Saul Rubinek is outstanding as the beleaguered head of the division. Ian McKellen (as Bill Kraus), Richard Gere (as an unidentified choreographer based on Michael Bennet), Jeffrey Nordling (as the notorious Patient Zero), and Alan Alda, who practically steals the show as the duplicitous Dr. Gallo, give masterful performances. Matthew Modine’s bland approach to Dr. Francis, in contrast, seems artificial and stale until his final scene at the bedside of Bill Kraus. And the Band Played On is valuable for discussion and study because of the excellent overview it provides about AIDS, touching base with all the important factors: the initial lack of interest by media and politicians, the lack of government funding, the homophobia of mainstream society, the rivalry and infighting between major research organizations, the hostility of militant gays who spurned any modification of their lifestyle, and the slow response of blood banks to safeguard their supply. The final memorial epilogue is also of great interest. Only a few of these victims are identified by name. Since the celebrities appear together with ordinary individuals (including babies), this technique also helps to illustrate the breadth of the impact of the AIDS epidemic.

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