Following The Ninth: In The Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony – Film Review

(The following review is a special report regarding a showing of the documentary Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony. The film will be presented at the Phoenix Art Museum on Sunday, September 16 at noon, followed by a Q&A after the screening. The film has screened in almost every major American city, but not in Phoenix. Also note that The Phoenix Symphony Orchestra will be performing the Ninth that same weekend at Symphony Hall, complimenting the presentation of the documentary. For more regarding the film’s presentation at Phoenix Art Museum CLICK HERE. For more regarding the performances at Symphony Hall, CLICK HERE.)

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If you can’t tell the difference between The Thieving Magpie and The Hall of the Mountain King and you have little interest in classical music, it’s almost certain that if you know anything at all about Beethoven’s 9th it was because of the movies. Whether your introduction came from excerpts on the soundtrack for A Clockwork Orange, the moment when the doors to the safe in Die Hard’s Nakatomi building finally opened, or the climactic student talent contest in Sister Act 2 where a pop/rock/rap version of Ode to Joy was performed, there’s no escaping the glorious Ninth.

As the title suggests, in the documentary Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony, director Kerry Candaele explores Ludwig Van Beethoven’s masterpiece and its effect on our lives, plus its undeniable importance on our culture. Yet the film is no exercise in learning the mechanics of the music, nor is it a lesson on understanding the inspiration that lead Beethoven to write the piece. Following the Ninth aims for something else.

After a brief word from Artistic Director of Music For Life International, George Mathew, who explains the emotional content to the opening of the Ninth’s first movement – “It enters your bloodstream, then changes who you are” – the documentary immediately begins its theme of combining the power of the music with the plight of often heartbreaking human resiliency.

The film uses four landmark events in global history as a way of pinpointing the scope and dramatic play of the work, leading up to the moment when Beethoven’s expressive, inspirational music directly correlated to those circumstances. Using archival footage, TV newsreels, and new interviews with reminiscences from those directly involved, the film takes us to China while explaining the circumstances that lead to what happened in Tiananmen Square during the student uprising; to Japan, before, during, and after the 2011 earthquake and the following tsunami; Berlin, when the wall came down and East finally met West; and Chile, where the CIA backed coup of the country lead to Pinochet’s devastating, violent leadership.

Filmed across 12 countries, Following the Ninth is an ambitious project that at times appears to incorporate more information than it can handle. With quick cuts and fast edits, one moment we’re in Chile learning how Pinochet’s crushing junta came to the country, and next we’re in China, with hardly a moment to properly take in the information from the previous story. It’s like the evening news where one story immediately follows another, then another, to the point where by the end you can’t quite remember the details of any. Big screen documentaries traditionally have the advantage over television by having both the time and a larger canvas on which it can explore its themes. Following the Ninth, with its abrupt edits and story hopping, appears to have its film-making roots in low-attention-span television, inspired from early music videos where fragmented cuts and jumps shape the picture. It’s movie-making born of an MTV generation; you can never quite contemplate one story before another is thrust before you.

Plus, there’s the danger of concentrating so much on the real-life events and keeping up with where you are or who is doing the talking that at times you may forget there’s even a connection between what you’re watching and Beethoven’s music. But it’s during the final segment once the film touches on the symphony’s fourth movement when sound and vision merge into something quite spectacular and emotionally enriching, and that’s where the documentary soars. “It (the Ninth) seems to express most completely what human beings are struggling for; what’s possible for mankind,” states Benjamin Zander, conductor for the Boston Philharmonic in Cape Town, South Africa, and it’s in this final portion of the documentary where it all comes together.

Hearing the rousing Ode to Joy played through speakers in Tiananmen Square, hearing it again as East Berliners walk across the border into West and are greeted with open arms, again with a chorus of 10,000 voices in Japan, or perhaps most emotionally effective, hearing it again when told of how women took to the streets of Chile and sang to tortured prisoners who remained behind bars is something undeniably inspirational. “It was like a shield against fear,” explains one witness who took part in the street singing. “It was an act against the military, against the dictatorship.”

Despite its flaws, Following the Ninth ultimately succeeds in what it’s attempting to illustrate. Expression through music and the joy of singing is the most compelling avenue through which an emotion can travel. Director Candaele shows you why and how it was done.

Yet, finally, there’s always a remaining sense of irony that can never quite escape your thoughts as you journey through the film’s four global stories and witness its connection to Beethoven’s work. Regarded by musicologists as one of the supreme achievements in the history of music, the fact that it was written by a man who was almost totally deaf is something incomprehensible to the rest of us. As one observer states, “How tragic that the person who created this, who was one of the greatest manipulators of musical sound, was unable to hear any of it.

MPAA Rating: NR            Length: 80 Minutes

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