Music From the Big House: Film Review

Music From the Big House Still - H 2012
Matson Films

Music From the Big House Still - H 2012

Don’t look for Elvis in this stark musical doc set in a maximum security prison.

Bruce McDonald’s documentary focuses on Canadian blues singer Rita Chiarelli as she prepares for a jailhouse concert at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

The always potent theme of music as a redemptive force is explored to only middling effect in Music From the Big House, Bruce McDonald’s documentary set at the maximum security Louisiana State Penitentiary. Detailing Canadian blues singer Rita Chiarelli’s interactions with a variety of hardened inmates as they prepare for a jailhouse concert, the film radiates good will even as it downplays darker aspects of the situation.

Chiarelli, rather grandiosely described as “Canada’s Goddess of the Blues,” took a pilgrimage to the prison, formerly known as Angola and once the site of a slave plantation. It has a rich musical history—Leadbelly was an inmate, and was supposedly pardoned after he dazzled the governor with his talent.

The film concentrates far more on the ever-ebullient Chiarelli than on the prisoners, most of them lifers, who deliver on-camera ruminations about forgiveness, hope and other relevant topics in broadly general terms. Their individual cases are not explored, except in postscript detailing their often heinous crimes that puts much of what we’ve seen in a vastly different context.

There’s also generous footage from the actual prison concert itself, during which Chiarelli and the prisoners deliver rousing if unexceptional renditions of various R&B and gospel standards. Suffice it to say that there’s no latter-day Leadbelly revealed, with the incarcerated performers displaying far more enthusiasm than talent.

Still, the proceedings have a certain haunted quality, thanks to the dramatic setting and the stark black-and-white cinematography by Steve Cosens that fully conveys its bleakness.   
Opened: June 1 (Matson Films)
Director: Bruce McDonald
Screenwriters: Tony Burgess, Erin Faith Young
Producers: Erin Faith Young, Jennifer St. John
Director of photography: Steve Cosens
Editor: Eamonn O’Connor
Music: Chris Guglick
Not rated, 90 min.