Underseen Movie: ‘Music From The Big House’ – A Glorious Prison Musical

Music From The Big House” follows Rita Chiarelli, or “the goddess of Canadian blues” as she is known, 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 once there is a number of inmates who have long since found solace through their love of music, and this leads her to stage a concert at the prison with them. 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 this documentary in color, but the decision was later made 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 the filmmakers and Chiarelli were allowed access inside this prison is amazing to say the least, and it almost seems like a miracle they made it out of there as well.

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 when we are told what crimes they have committed which got them sentenced to time behind bars, and this was a smart move on the part of the filmmakers. By not learning of their crimes right at the start, we are forced not to 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 might consider this project to be a self-serving one for Chiarelli so 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 who have seen her perform live can verify what a powerful musical presence she can be. Those not familiar with her work will be blown away by her performances, and there is no forgetting her once the lights go up. 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 earn long prison sentences. Still, none of it deters her from performing with them in what turns out to be a joyous occasion, and the kind many do not expect to see from hardened inmates.

Speaking of the concert, we do get to see a lot of it here. The musical numbers are utterly invigorating, and the audience I saw this documentary 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 thrilling to take in even if you are not a fan of the blues. I haven’t been to many movies over the years where the audience really got into what was onscreen, so this is not a cinematic experience I am going to forget any time soon.

“Music From The Big House” is one of those small movies, let alone documentaries, which deserves a bigger audience than it has already received thus far. While you could just get away with buying the soundtrack (and please do buy it), this documentary invites more than one viewing, and it would make a wonderful double feature with the Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense.” You will not be able to keep your feet still while watching either film, nor should you.

* * * * out of * * * *

Rita Chiarelli Speaks About the Making of ‘Music From The Big House’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a screening which took place on June 13, 2012.

Canadian blues artist Rita Chiarelli made a special appearance at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica to talk about the documentary “Music From The Big House.” Directed by Bruce McDonald, it follows Chiarelli as she goes inside the Louisiana State Maximum Security Penitentiary to perform with inmates who share her love of music. Chiarelli’s appearance was part of her tour with the documentary which has her traveling to 60 cities in 70 days for post-screening Q&As and performing the blues, and she blew us away with what she had to say as well as her music.

Moderating the Q&A was Richard Matson of Matson Films, the company distributing “Music from the Big House” in the United States. His first question for Chiarelli was how she managed to persuade the prison to let her in, and she said she had to be “very charming.” She admitted to having many meetings with the warden and other prison officials in Louisiana and managed to gain their trust over time. Putting it very bluntly, she said, “They let me in… and they also let me out.”

One audience member asked why the documentary was shot in black and white, and Chiarelli said cinematographer Steve Cosens originally shot it in color. However, it was decided later on to take the color out as everyone thought this was really how the movie should be seen. The way Chiarelli says she saw it, black and white “carried the story more” and made it “truer to its meaning.”

Chiarelli also added how the whole documentary was shot in just two and a half days and that everything done “was a first take.” Everything we saw on screen was “totally how it went down.”

Another person asked why the prison had so many African-Americans and young men incarcerated there. Chiarelli responded that 80% of the population in Louisiana is black and added “whatever that speaks to, that’s what’s going on.” She also said the laws in Louisiana are “very strict” and that it is the only state in America which still operates on the Napoleonic Code which allows more in the way of judgment calls than anything else.

One thing I wondered about, as did others, was why the crimes these inmates convicted of and serving time for were listed at the end of the documentary. We don’t know exactly what they had done to be behind bars while watching, but we do get hints at times of what landed them there. Chiarelli stated this was done so we “wouldn’t judge them before meeting them.” She and McDonald wanted us to meet the inmates first, get so see them in their present state and show how their love of music elevated their souls, and then we got what she called the “nitty gritty” of their crimes.

Chiarelli said she found it hard to ask the inmates what they did as it felt “rude to ask.” Her hope was they would eventually “open up by choice” and they would trust her and the filmmakers to tell their story.

Chiarelli finished her evening at the Aero Theatre by performing some songs from “Music from the Big House” live, specifically “Rest My Bones” and “These Four Walls” which she wrote after the making of the documentary was completed. She certainly has a great set of pipes on her, and her passion for blues music is beyond measure. It is this same passion which is shared by the inmates onscreen, and it makes for one of the most exhilarating musical documentaries you could ever hope to see.