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One of the most recognizable pieces of orchestral music ever composed, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony — particularly its Friedrich Schiller-versed “Ode to Joy” section — has long had a life outside the concert hall, and not only as accompaniment to the schemes of dapper villains like Alan Rickman in Die Hard. In Following the Ninth, Kerry Candaele focuses on four moments in global history where the Ninth rallied the oppressed or comforted those in mourning. The earnest doc offers enough spirit-lifting moments to prove its thesis and leave viewers inspired, but it’s as much a niche work as Beethoven’s is universal, and will quickly segue from specialty theatrical bookings to a respectable career on video.
Candaele, in his first outing as director, could hardly have chosen four points in history that better match the drama and sweep of the music: East Berlin just before the Wall came down; Chile, where citizens suffered under Pinochet‘s junta; Tiananmen Square during the student uprising; and Japan, where a long-lived tradition of performing the Ninth in December took on added significance after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
His selection of interviewees from these episodes, though, is seemingly arbitrary: With the exception of the Japan segment, each story is told by just one or two witnesses; they’re barely introduced, and we’re left to guess how central a role they played in the dramas they recount.
This might be by design, in keeping with the populist spirit of “Ode to Joy” (“All men shall become brothers …”), a sentiment underlined by footage of Billy Bragg performing his own lump-in-throat lyrics to the melody. But in execution the choices feel scattered, particularly given the extent to which Candaele and editor Alejandro Valdes-Rochin embrace the slice-and-dice structure in vogue among documentarians. No story is before us for long before we bounce back to another. The same goes for the conductors and musicologists who, though they get practically no time to discuss Beethoven’s life or the symphony’s context, do an excellent job of assessing the emotions it has stirred for nearly two centuries.
Production Company: Battle Hymns Productions, B-Side Films, MMAM
Director-Screenwriter: Kerry Candaele
Producers: Kerry Candaele, Ali Eckert, Oliver Herder, Hinrich Luhrs
Executive producers: Kevin McGrath, Nick Taylor, Molly Wryn, Kirt Eftekhar
Directors of photography: Chris Bottoms, Nick Higgins
Editor: Alejandro Valdes-Rochin
No rating, 78 minutes
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