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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 03.15.11] movie review news documentary

Year: 2010
Director: Bruce McDonald
Writer: Tony Burgess, Erin Faith Young
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Marina Antunes
Rating: 8 out of 10

One of the things that struck me watching Pontypool (review) director Bruce McDonald’s Music from the Big House, one of the four films he directed in 2010, is the raw power of the music. Watching a group of men in the prison yard composing a tune filled me with awe at their ability to create something so beautiful and powerful in the span of a few minutes which isn’t present in many full-length, top 40 albums.

Canadian blues/roots singer Rita Chiarelli started visiting Louisiana State Penitentiary, AKA Angola Prison, a maximum security penitentiary with a tough and sordid history, ten years ago. What first attracted her to the facility was its rich history of music but on her first and subsequent visits, she was impressed by the music which was still being created at Angola. Over the years, Chiarelli has continued to visit the prison and has met a few of the individuals producing music and with the help of the prison warden, she ventured to set up a concert for the inmates. Unlike Johnny Cash’s famous show at Folsom Prison, Chiarelli would also employ the help of the jailhouse artists to entertain their brethren. The resulting film is, as expected, more than just a concert film. We see Chiarelli speaking to various musically inclined members of the prison population, learn a little bit about them and hear them speak about the music that inspires them and, bluntly, about prison life.

This is where Music from the Big House gets interesting. A large part of the prison population is made-up of older men who have served extended time and have, over the decades, changed. At one point, we hear an inmate speak about his parole hearing and how, even after having served a chunk of time, he flubbed the hearing by failing to remember the victims of his crime. There’s an earnest understanding that he wasn’t ready for parole at that time but that now, six years later, he understands why they denied it. It’s powerful stuff and it is only one of the many similar accounts which Chiarelli encounters.

But Music from the Big House isn’t just about the music, it’s also about redemption and it brings into focus the state of the penal system and how society deals with criminals. Can people change? Is rehabilitation possible? Chiarelli’s experience suggests that they can and listening to these men talk, many about self discovery and the profound affect religion has had in their lives, it’s easy to forget that these are criminals, individuals that caused serious harm and in many cases death. Many of them will die at Angola, having lived most of their lives behind bars and yet, there’s a humanity, morality and friendship among these men that, unknowing of where they are, we as a society would aspire to.

On occasion, particularly towards the end of the film after we have met and spent some time with the men, Chiarelli reminds us that these are criminals and her struggle to deal with that fact after relating to the inmates on a level of mutual friendship and respect is devastating for both herself and for the audience. It’s easy for me to say I believe in forgiveness but I’m not sure I’d feel the same way if I was one of their victims.

Beautifully captured by cinematographer Steve Cosens in stark black and white, Music from the Big House is very much a documentary about jail house blues, one that gets the soul singing and the foot tapping. It’s a beautiful film and one that all music lovers, regardless of preferred style, can appreciate because the music speaks to something deeper in our souls. It speaks to love, redemption, forgiveness and understanding.

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Anonymous (9 years ago) Reply

Typo in the title:)

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