The redemptive power of music reveals itself behind the rough walls of Angola Prison in this documentary.
Movie Grade: B-
DVD Grade: B-
In Bruce McDonald's Music From The Big House we are brought into the infamous Louisiana State Maximum Security Penitentiary - aka Angola Prison - as blues singer Rita Chiarelli (billed on the back cover as "Canada's Queen of the Blues") attempts to explore the powerful music created within. Over the course of 90 minutes Chiarelli meets with an assortment of inmates, schedules a concert featuring her and the prison bands and as the doc reaches its crescendo highlights the performances. The roots music history of the prison that once housed Lead Belly is examined early on - including some truly raw recordings that are downright goosebump-inducing.
McDonald doesn't necessarily canonize the inmates as woeful victims, but he does allow them to honestly discuss their lives - both in prison and before. Most of the men are lifers, and while McDonald does not provide crimes/sentences until over the closing credits it becomes apparent early on that they're not in there for petty offenses. Nearly all of the subjects present themselves well - a couple of them exceedingly likeable - to the point where it is possible to get a glimpse of how incarceration has perhaps changed them for the better. There's much talk of finding religion and how that helped, but it is their musical abilities that form the foundation of the documentary.
The "let's put on a show" aspect unintentionally straddled a weird line a couple of times for me, as Chiarelli's motivations occasionally seemed in question. Was this self-aggrandizing or genuine? Is she showcasing the inmates or simply looking for a collection of captive back-up bands? I know that's extremely cynical on my part - and I want to believe Chiarelli had the most sincere of intentions - but I can't say the notion never crossed my mind. Once I got myself past that conceptual hurdle I settled in for the performances, which are impressive. The range of musical styles runs the gamut from blues to country to Motown, and each band shows some great chops, even in one instance when performing a brand new Chiarelli tune penned the day before the show.
I know these men are admitted criminals but I admired the adaptability of the inmates featured in the way they have accepted their lot and how music has filled a hole. But it is difficult to overlook that there were real, flesh-and-blood victims of their crimes who lost their lives and who don't get the same luxury to be featured in a documentary. That's where my indifference for the film itself lies. It's great to see music shaping and changing someone's life, but I couldn't help but not feel the same need to celebrate it as Chiarelli and McDonald chose to here.
The 1.85:1 black-and-white anamorphic widescreen transfer is solid, with a consistently even-keeled grayscale. There's nothing overly remarkable here, just a clean print that is simple yet presentable.
While the 2.0 stereo audio is - as to be expected - fairly limited dynamically, for the majority of the doc it is more than adequate for delivering clean dialogue. What surprised me was how well the concert performances sounded, with a pleasing, full-bodied sound.
Extras begin with additional assorted performances under a section called Concert Extras, consisting of Harvest Time (04m:38s), Mississippi Boy (04m:25s), Mother Prays For Me (06m:50s) and Rain On Me (05m:15s). A small set of Bonus Scenes - aka deleted footage - features Warden Talk: Angola Prison (02m:30s), Music For The Soul (05m:24s) and LSP TV (03m:34s). These Four Walls: Stills Video (04m:25s) is a dramatically cut music video with Rita Chiarelli contributing a powerfully moving version of the song.