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Beethoven Rolls Over — and Rocks the House

A rock musician, historian, and director finds four spots in the recent past where Beethoven's Ninth Symphony had a profound connection with current events.

Arts and Culture  |  Oct 9, 2017  |  By Greg Blake Miller
Ludwig van Beethoven

Kerry Candaele's documentary 'Following the Ninth' explores the intersection of Beethoven's symphony and current events.

Editor's Note: 

Greg Blake Miller is a professor of journalism and the story producer of Following the NinthThe film will screen at 7 p.m. Oct. 11 at the Marjorie Barrick Museum as part of the University Forum lecture series. The filmmakers will host a workshop on documentary filmmaking and storytelling at 2:30 p.m. that afternoon at Greenspun Hall's Media Innovation Lab. Here, Miller discusses how director Kerry Candaele first became interested in Beethoven. 

Kerry Candaele was a historian and a rocker, and he had more than enough interests to keep him busy for a lifetime of study and writing and filming and recording. He had been a Hofstadter Fellow at Columbia University and had written a book about the Great Migration; work had taken him from the Middle East to East Asia and back again; he had worked on documentaries as diverse as A League of Their Own (upon which the subsequent Penny Marshall feature film was based), Iraq for Sale, and Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. He had released two rock albums, Gas Money and Icarus Descending.

And then one day he slipped a CD into the car stereo, took a drive up the California coast, and found Beethoven.

There is a difference between knowing Beethoven and finding Beethoven. The first is a matter of cultural literacy; the second is a sort of secular conversion experience. That day, with the Pacific to his left and the California cliffs to his right, Candaele heard nuances in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that his rock ’n’ roll ears had previously been unready to hear. “It was the third movement that drew me into Beethoven’s world,” Candaele wrote in his 2013 book, Journeys with Beethoven. “I found in the adagio and finale a staggering revelation: Here was a music as moving as my beloved rock and soul, as powerful as the Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley,’ as tender and touching as Otis Redding’s ‘These Arms of Mine.’ I had found another beautiful reason to feel fully alive.’

That drive launched Candaele on an obsessive search for two goals. First, he tried to discern the emotional roots of Beethoven’s extraordinary ability to simultaneously convey anguish and hope. Second, as a historian, he sought to explore the ways in which the power of the Ninth has touched other people in other societies—particularly in moments when they, like Beethoven himself, were searching for hope in the face of loss.

The result was the documentary film Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony, which tells the story of the Ninth’s impact in four critical moments of historical crisis: during the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, when the families of political prisoners sang the Ode to Joy outside the prison where their loved ones were being tortured; at the Berlin Wall, where, as the Wall fell, Leonard Bernstein conducted the Ninth, altering the “Ode to Joy” to the “Ode to Freedom”; at Tiananmen Square, where protesters played the Ninth over loudspeakers to drown out the Communist Party propaganda being piped into the square; and in Japan, where more than 5,000 singers and musicians gathered to perform the Ninth in the wake of the tragic 2011 Tsunami.

Following the Ninth, directed by Candaele and story-produced by UNLV journalism professor Greg Blake Miller, has been screened in more than 250 cities around the world. It has shown at Lincoln Center in New York and at Rome’s House of Cinema. The film has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and on PBS’s Moyers and Company, where Bill Moyers said, “The film is beautiful and powerful … If millions could experience its affirming and incandescent message, we might turn around the destructive dynamics that are overwhelming the earth.”