Music from the Big House – 2011 Raindance

Anybody that is a fan of blues music should watch the documentary Music from the Big House. From acclaimed director Bruce McDonald, Music from the Big House follows blues singer Rita Chiarelli as she travels to Louisiana State Maximum Security Prison, also known as Angola Prison. Many people say that Angola Prison was the birthplace of the blues, and there are even recordings of Leadbelly himself performing when he was incarcerated there.

Rita originally goes to Angola to play a concert for the inmates, but noticing their own musical abilities, she decides to do what has never been done before: put on a concert with the inmates. Music from the Big House tells the story of how this concert was brought about. Rehearsals are intercut with interviews with both Rita and a few of the inmates.

The black-and-white documentary is beautifully photographed. In a Q+A following the screening, Rita tells us that the footage was actually shot in colour, and then the colour was taken out, giving the film it’s wonderful depth. The music itself is also fantastic and covers a wide range of blues music, featuring performances of country, funk, rock and gospel by Rita and the inmates. I recommend purchasing the soundtrack if you’re a blues fan!

Interestingly, and this is one of the best aspects of this documentary, the crimes of the inmates are not revealed until the ending credits, so that we are given a chance to get to know them without pre-judgement. Rita wants us to focus solely on the music here, not what these men have done. In fact, Rita seems so desperate for us to see these inmates in a good light that they actually come across as almost too angelic. These are maximum-security prisoners, and we are supposedly meant to believe that all have been honest and virtuous inmates because music and God have cleansed their souls. In a prison that was once notorious for its violence, I found this a little hard to believe.

Rita falls down by lamenting the fact that these men are lifers. She is saddened that they know that they will die in Angola Prison. We never get to know these men the way that she does, so her comments are actually quite startling and out of place. Of course, at the end she tells us that she learned to “open her heart” more, but I was left wondering what the point of it all was. Rita went to Angola on a sort of bluesy pilgrimage and we are aware that she has learned something, but what have we learned? We haven’t.

All in all, it’s a slow documentary that does what it says on the tin: gives you music from the prison. But in the end, it leaves the viewer expecting something a little more.