In 1968, Johnny Cash played Folsom State Prison, in what would become the definitive live performance of his career. It’s a show that will never be forgotten. This wasn’t, however, the first prison-bound performance to make history, and it certainly wasn’t the last. Director Bruce McDonald’s documentary Music from the Big House follows Canadian blues vocalist Rita Chiarelli as she journeys into the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola — the same prison where, legend has it, Leadbelly gave a performance that secured his pardon and eventual freedom — as well as the joy of music that rings deftly throughout its halls.
Shot almost entirely in black and white (save for a few borrowed clips from an LSP-TV broadcast, shot simultaneously), Music from the Big House captures Chiarelli’s soulful-yet-bluesy, diva-esque persona and parades it to the point of nausea; granted, there is no denying that her passion for music and history is robust, but the film loses some of its grace and goodwill by way of that little voice inside crying, “She ain’t really livin’ the blues.”
Thankfully, the interviews in McDonald’s film focus not only upon Chiarelli, but also upon the Angola inmates, who give voice to their thoughts on a variety of topics. In reality, Music from the Big House is not just a compilation of well-shot footage from a prison concert; it is a musing on issues of reality, morality, religion and reincarnation, viewed through the impact of true rehabilitation.
The film’s antagonist and focal point is not the singer but Ray Jones, an inmate of Angola since 1980. Once you cast aside the fact that Music from the Big House often masquerades as some bullshit learning experience for a white Canadian woman (Chiarelli, to be just, does come from a blue-collar background of hardworking and blues-worthy individuals), the point of contact becomes Jones and his fellow inmates. Too rarely are we moved by spoken words alone, especially from men that society deems unfit for civic interaction, but the thoughts and words of these men are heartfelt and sincere — and it is music, religion and an acceptance of moral reality that have brought them to a place of contentment, alongside the old-school country diva that is Rita Chiarelli.
Music from the Big House is now playing at the Bijou; bijou-cinemas.com