Review: ‘Music From the Big House’

A docu torn between concert film and observational essay on incarceration.

The idea of exploring the liberating power of music within the confines of Angola State Prison — ex-slave plantation in Louisiana and the largest maximum-security facility in the U.S. — is the sharpest thing about “Music From the Big House,” a docu torn between concert film and observational essay on incarceration. Following Canadian singer Rita Chiarelli as she organizes a behind-bars concert with the prison’s musician-inmates, pic becomes too much of a showcase for Chiarelli and not enough the story of the men, virtually none of whom say what they did, or didn’t do, to warrant their life sentences. DocuWeeks exposure aside, escape from Canadian television seems unlikely.

Angola has a rich musical history: Leadbelly was pardoned from there; bluesman Robert Pete Williams and country star Freddy Fender were inmates. But helmer Bruce McDonald (“The Tracey Fragments”) never finds the nut of what music means to these men, many of whom have very little hope of freedom. The performances are fun, if musically only adequate — there are no evident virtuosi languishing within Angola’s walls — and Chiarelli’s attempts to frame matters philosophically fall a little flat, given that she can always go home.

Music From the Big House



A Cache Film & Television presentation. Produced by Erin Faith Young, Jennifer St. John. Directed by Bruce McDonald. Written by Tony Burgess, Erin Faith Young.


Camera (B&W/color), Steve Cosens; editor, Eamonn O'Connor; music, Chris Guglick. Reviewed on DVD, New York, July 30, 2010. (In DocuWeeks.) Running time: 86 MIN.


Rita Chiarelli, Chris Morrison, Prentice Robinson, Calvin Lewis, Wayne Guidry, Laird Veillon.

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