Appellate Judge James A. Stewart doubts the cool Angola T-shirts make prison life more enjoyable.
"I realized there was new music coming from behind those walls."—Rita Chiarelli
After Canadian blues singer Rita Chiarelli visited Angola prison for the first time, she came back. The infamous Louisiana prison has improved some in recent years, but it's hardly a resort; there's no doubt that the men who must stay there would rather leave and never come back, even if they now have ceiling fans and microwaves.
What Chiarelli wanted was to work with prison singers and musicians. Her work has been documented in Music from the Big House, directed by Bruce McDonald. The documentary looks at the prison's music history through some early recordings, and then follows Chiarelli as she preps three Angola musical groups for their concert.
Although Big House never shies away from the fact that the men shown have been convicted of serious crimes—one inmate talks about the fact that he killed a man, and another talks about his unsuccessful parole hearing—McDonald concentrates on the way the men cope with a hopeless, endless situation. "You walk around with the knowledge that you're going to die here," Chiarelli says. Viewers are also reminded that Louisiana still throws the book at its convicts ("Life means life"). What you see is men struggling, not for a second chance, but simply to exist. The music is part of that struggle.
Although there's some color footage of the actual concert, produced by the prison's video staff, almost all of Big House is in black-and-white, which makes the already weathered, drab setting even starker. One scene at the end is particularly dramatic, with bright light making for something almost surreal.
Viewers get to hear a good bit of music during the documentary, but rest assured, there's more: five complete songs, including "These Four Walls" done as a music video. It's a mix of jazz, blues, and gospel, delivered with impressive energy. If Angola hasn't recorded an album anytime recently, it should.
Also included in the bonus features are a talk with the warden and his second-in-command; a segment, "Music for the Soul," of Chiarelli talking with inmates; and a tour of the prison's video facility.
If you ever had any doubts about the importance of music in our lives, Music from the Big House will chase them away. It may not be able to erase years of imprisonment, but while they're singing or playing, they're happy. You might just be happy, too, that the inmates have at least that respite from their troubles.
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