The Stars of Stage and Screen…Song #15/250: The Streets of Philadelphia by Bruce Springsteen from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to the Film, Philadelphia.

These are the stories behind the most memorable songs from Hollywood movies and Broadway musicals.

The movie, Philadelphia, was released in the early 1990s. It starred Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington as the two main characters. The soundtrack to the movie contained original work by the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young. That so many heavy hitters from their respective industries were involved in this movie project speaks to the larger intent behind which the movie was made in the first place. Director Jonathan Demme wanted to make a movie that would take a ground-level look at the AIDS crisis in America. Demme knew that the story of a Gay man dying of AIDS would be a tough sell for certain segments of the population so he enlisted people to support his project such as Springsteen, Washington, Young and Hanks who, he felt, would be a big enough draw based on name recognition alone to reach as broad an audience with his message as possible. That message included important information about how AIDS was actually transmitted and how much homophobia came into play in further exacerbating this painful life experience for so many Americans. Philadelphia went on to be nominated for several Academy Awards including wins for Best Actor for Hanks and Best Song for Springsteen.

The plot of Philadelphia unfolds just as the AIDS epidemic had begun to play out in America. In the 1980s, AIDS was sweeping through the US. It was a disease that was considered by some as God’s punishment against homosexuals because, for the most part, those who were contracting AIDS were Gay men. As such, in addition to the fear of an unknown disease that many Americans faced, there was the added element of homophobia that was thrown into the mix. The result of this was that those who contracted AIDS suffered physically, as the disease ravaged their bodies but, as well, they suffered emotionally and mentally due to a campaign of ostracization that took place all across the US. For many AIDS patients, during a time in their lives when they were most in need of compassion and companionship, many found themselves the object of panic and disgust. In the end, many AIDS patients died alone and lonely.

Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington in a court scene from the movie, Philadelphia.

In the movie, Tom Hanks played a young Gay lawyer who contracts AIDS. All throughout this career at the law firm he was working at, he hid his sexual orientation from his employers and colleagues. Then, one day a lesion appears on his forehead. A colleague accuses Hanks of having AIDS because he associated the one lesion with the disease. Not long after this incident at work, Hanks is fired for “incompetence”. Hanks believes he was fired because of his sexual orientation and because of AIDS so he decides to sue the law firm for wrongful dismissal. As Hanks begins assembling his court case, we begin to see some of the obstacles that AIDS patients faced at the time. For starters, no lawyer is willing to take on his case because they are all afraid of catching AIDS just by being with him. Hanks eventually asks Denzel Washington’s character, a fellow lawyer, for help. Washington refuses because he is fearful of getting too close. But then, a few days later, Washington sees Hanks in a law library as he attempts to conduct some research into his case. Washington watches as those around Hanks all move away from him and how Hanks is urged to work in an isolated room, away from public view. Denzel Washington’s character recognizes discrimination at play because he, himself, had experienced it as a black man in America. So, Denzel Washington agrees to represent Hanks in his suit. Needless to say, the journey of discovery that Denzel Washington takes as he learns about how AIDS is actually transmitted is the journey of discovery that Director Jonathan Demme was hoping all of America would take. In the end, Washington and Hanks become close friends and we all get to see the humanity at play as Tom Hanks progresses through the various stages of this terrible disease. Humanizing Aids sufferers, helping to destigmatize those who contracted AIDS, as well as homosexuality, in general were all part of why Philadelphia was made in the first place.

Bruce Springsteen walks alone through the streets of Philadelphia in the video that opened the movie.

The soundtrack to this movie is stellar. In addition to the songs written by Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, there is music from Peter Gabriel, Sade, Indigo Girls, Maria Callas and even one hit wonders, The Spin Doctors! As with most movies, the music involved adds another layer of meaning to the story. In the specific case of the Bruce Springtsteen song, “The Streets of Philadelphia”, the story is that Demme asked Springsteen to contribute a song that would act as the opening of the film. At first, Springsteen was reluctant to do so because he had not had much experience scoring films but he agreed to at least give it a try. Springsteen’s version of a try was the song, “The Streets of Philadelphia”. In this song, Springsteen casts himself in the role of the AIDS sufferer. He describes the effects of AIDS on his body…how his clothes don’t fit him anymore because he is losing weight, how his appearance is changing and, as a result, is making him “unrecognizable to himself” but mostly, Springsteen describes how alone he feels as the rest of society distances itself from him in his hour of greatest need. Demme is on record as saying that when Springsteen submitted his “rough draft” of the song, he and his wife listened to it and cried. That rough draft was kept and is the track that was recorded and put onto the film’s soundtrack album. Not only did Bruce Springsteen win the Academy Award for Best Song but, “The Streets of Philadelphia” also won four Grammy Awards for Springsteen, too.

Princess Diana shakes hands with an unidentified AIDS patient in what turned out to be one of the most important and influential images ever in the battle against the disease of AIDS.

If you have seen Philadelphia then you know that it is a movie that is not easy to watch all of the way through. But, sometimes it is important for the general public to be asked to keep watching and to not turn away. As unpleasant as the death process can be and as ugly as racism and homophobia can also be, if we are ever to become a more empathetic and tolerant society then, watching movies such as Philadelphia is a must. There are many who point to Philadelphia as a turning point in the public battle against AIDS. After watching such respected actors as Hanks and Washington on screen and listening to such respected musicians like Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young, the tone of the public discourse surrounding AIDS changed for the better. AIDS victims were less isolated and feared, it became easier to raise much needed funds for research and it suddenly became a badge of honour to participate in AIDS marches and to wear “ribbons” of support while in public. But, as we know, there are diseases of the medical kind and diseases of the spiritual kind and the battle remains ongoing. Sometimes, the most important direct action we can take is to be brave and not look away.

The link to the video for the song, “The Streets of Philadelphia” by Bruce Springsteen can be found here.

The link to the video for the song, “Philadelphia” by Neil Young can be found here.

***This song plays over the closing scene in the movie which is the wake of Tom Hanks’ character. For my money, this is one of the best closing scenes of any movie. I always bawl whenever I watch it. It is devastating! Neil Young’s haunting song is perfect.

The link to the video for the trailer to the movie, Philadelphia can be found here.

For more information about ongoing efforts to cure Aids in Canada, the link to the official website for Canadian AIDS Society can be found here.

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