It was more than four years ago that I first heard about Following the Ninth, Kerry Candaele’s documentary about the impact of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Now, after a Kickstarter campaign, production delays, posted clips and a tour of various theatres across the U.S. beginning in 2013, the film is finally available for purchase as a DVD (Kickstarter backers got it last year).
I’ll be honest: after waiting so long to see it, the film itself was a bit of an anticlimax, its impact blunted a bit by all the reading I’d done about the Ninth and its uses in the meantime. That reading included Journeys with Beethoven (my post), an ebook co-authored by Candaele with Greg Mitchell, the first half of which chronicles Candaele’s adventures in making the film.
Comparing the ebook (and the trailer) with the final product reveals major changes, as you might expect from a project that took years to complete. Billy Bragg, who wrote new English lyrics for the Ode to Joy is largely limited to the film’s opening. The Japanese storyline, focusing on the thousands of amateurs who sing the Ninth at New Year’s, was revised to reflect the response to the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. And a new storyline that weaves the fall of the Berlin Wall, the life experiences of East German Lene Ford, and Leonard Bernstein’s performance of the Ninth at a Christmas 1989 concert in East Berlin in which Freude (“joy”) was replaced by Freiheit (“freedom”).
The Chilean and Chinese storylines appear to be as originally envisioned. In the former, Isabel Lipthay and Renato “Machi” Alvarado Vidal take us through their experiences under the Pinochet regime, where the “Himno de la Alegría” was used to protest that regime and lift the spirits of the prisoners. In the latter, Feng Congde described his unlikely rise to the leadership of the student movement in Tiananmen Square and his use of the Ninth to inspire his comrades and defy the Chinese Communist Party’s decrees.
To a certain extent the movie gets lost in these compelling storylines; there’s not nearly as much Beethoven as you might have expected (nor is the sound quality as excellent as it should be for a film about music). While the Ninth is central to the Japanese storyline, elsewhere it seems have a cameo role. That said, in every case there’s no question that the Ninth is right for the circumstances — that what Beethoven said in music (far more profoundly than Schiller’s single line “Alle Menschen werden Brüder”) is the right response to, or commentary on, the events in question. These are stories of pain — of repression, of resistance, of natural disaster — but also of hope: that our shared humanity can transcend any tragedy.
In the end, the film packs an enormously powerful emotional punch despite its rough edges. You may find it very difficult to listen to the Ninth in quite the same way again.