In the midst of the growing crisis of the AIDS epidemic, one journalist who witnessed the development and destruction wrought by this disease firsthand put together a regular series of columns chronicling what he felt was important for history not to forget. Appearing locally in San Francisco (perhaps ground zero for the epidemic, or certainly one of the first major sites to suffer) and then nationally in the likes of `Rolling Stone', Randy Shilts' commentary grew into the text `And the Band Played On', which follows the history of the AIDS crisis from many perspectives.
In reducing this massive tome to a reasonable-length feature, HBO pictures and Aaron Spelling (yes, Spelling, best known for Beverly Hills: 90210 and the like) had to devise a way of making it interesting and compelling for the small screen (this was a made-for-television film). They opted to follow the career of Dr. Don Francis, an epidemiologist with the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, and his team as they fought to uncover the mystery of the disease, and then had to fight to get public and official recognition of the problem.
Played by Matthew Modine, Francis gives a real sense of the frustration and confusion that faced the medical establishment in the early days of the disease. Coming at the time of a great conservative political revival on both sides of the Atlantic, a disease that seemed to affect undesirables, moral degenerates particularly (or so the popular sentiment ran), was unlikely to get any public assistance. Ian McKellan (who had yet to come out publicly as a gay man) played the political activist Bill Krause, who realised that he was fighting a difficult uphill battle during the Reagan era, when even his own Democratic party didn't want to embrace the gay community.
Perhaps the most interesting portrayal in the production is that of Alan Alda, who plays the enigmatic and controversial figure of Dr. Robert Gallo, discoverer of the first human retro-virus (which had, at that time, no disease to attach to it). Gallo's back-and-forth ego battles with the French researchers at the Pasteur Institute and with the CDC (and Dr. Francis in particular) may have caused delays and difficulties in finding adequate ways of identifying infections and virus-positive persons. The book goes into much more detail than the film about the 'which-virus-is-it?' controversy (HIV was not the first virus to which AIDS was attached). Gallo took exception to the way he was portrayed in the original film; in the updated video release there is addenda that addresses some of the issues.
The chilling decisions of hospital boards and from the troubled gay community, making decisions unwise in retrospect (and perhaps known to be unwise if politically untenable at the time) lend an air of concern about the way in which disease in general is handled in modern society. The ideal of public health concern is shown to be largely at the mercy of business and political decisions. The equally-chilling realisation that this was a disease with a potentially 100% mortality rate is an important aspect.
It almost falls into the realm of dark humour that, once there were laboratory allocations and some small budgetary allowance that it was thought that this disease would be identified, contained, and possibly cured within a matter of a few years, if not months. Now entering the third decade of the epidemic, one wonders at the misplaced optimism, and worries about what other, worse diseases are lurking around the world.
This made-for-television film is remarkable because of the number of big names that turned out for relatively small parts - Lily Tomlin, Phil Collins, Richard Gere, Steve Martin - many actors and actresses lent their support to this project as a public service, accepting only minimum union fees if any payment at all. The premiere was in Washington, D.C. before an audience which included members of Congress and government and industry leaders.
The film ends with a montage of video clips and stills of prominent people who had died of AIDS - the number of people is staggering, made apparent by the modern phenomenon of the AID quilt, a grass-roots project designed to keep the memories of each victim alive. This is the Butcher's Bill, a term coined by Nelson as he fought Napoleon, who asked what the daily death toll was. HBO films also produced an Academy Award winning documentary, `Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt', which I highly recommend as a supplement to this film.
While AIDS is no longer the automatic, immediate death sentence it once was, it is still a serious disease that has a high mortality rate, and is enormously expensive to treat and combat. But, the medical community is beginning to learn something. I hope you will take the time to listen to the story, which is an important one, put in compelling format.