‘Music from the Big House’ – an Exhilirating Musical Documentary

I have finally found a great 2012 documentary to champion with Bruce McDonald’s “Music From The Big House.” It follows “the goddess of Canadian blues” Rita Chiarelli as she visits what is considered to be the birthplace of blues music: Louisiana State Maximum Security Prison (a.k.a. Angola Prison). What she finds is a number of inmates who find solace through their love of music, and this leads her to stage a concert at the prison. But unlike when Johnny Cash did his performance at Folsom Prison, Chiarelli performs with the inmates instead of just for them.

Cinematographer Steve Cosens originally filmed “Music From The Big House” in color but later made the decision to show it in black and white which suits this documentary perfectly. McDonald goes over the history of this prison which was at one time known as the bloodiest in America. The descriptions given to us of how it operated years before gives you a picture of what hell on earth must seem like. The fact that the filmmakers and Chiarelli were allowed access inside this prison is amazing to say the least.

We get a chance to meet the individual inmates who end up playing in the concert, and they are a fascinating bunch. It is not until the very end of this documentary that we discover what crimes they committed which got them sent here, and this was a smart move on the part of the filmmakers. By not learning of their crimes right away, we are forced to not judge them ahead of their musical performances. Some of them do allude to their crimes without too many specifics, and one in particular hints at how he isn’t apologizing for what he did because he’s not sure he is yet.

Some may consider this project to be a self-serving one for Chiarelli so that she can get good press and sell a lot of records, but that is not the case. Her love for blues music is never in doubt, and those not familiar with her work will be blown away by her performances in this documentary. There are also moments where Chiarelli questions why she is doing this concert as she’s not blind to what these felons have done to land them in jail. Still, none of it deters her from performing with them in what turns out to be a joyous occasion you might not expect to see from hardened inmates.

Speaking of the concert, we do get to see a lot of it here in the documentary. The musical numbers are utterly invigorating, and the audience I saw this with couldn’t help but clap along with the music. They even applauded at the end of the songs and for good reason; the music is incredibly invigorating to take in even if you’re not a fan of the blues. I haven’t been to many movies recently where the audience really got into what was onscreen, so this one is a must to see in a theater near you.

“Music From The Big House” is one of those small movies (let alone documentaries) that deserves a big audience to come out and see it. While Hollywood puts an obscene amount of money behind summer blockbusters, this is an experience that no huge amount of money could easily produce. While you could just get away with buying the soundtrack, this documentary invites more than one viewing as it is that invigorating to watch.