Music from the Big House
★★ (out of 5 stars)
Talented filmmaker Bruce McDonald, shooting in stark black and white, sets up this prison doc/concert film with an interesting enough premise: Louisiana's infamous Angola prison, where Lead Belly was granted early release, is also the home of musically inclined prisoners. Soon, Canadian blues musician Rita Chiarelli organizes a concert that would integrate her own talents and those of the inmates. That's the premise.
What we get in the film is far different. Rather than a putting-on-a-show romp or an At Folsom Prison concert doc for the post-Katrina landscape, or even a harrowing tale of redemption from behind barbed wire, Music from the Big House middles along as a formless, touristy showcase for Chiarelli. It's such a frustratingly timid portrait that they won't even reveal the nature of these older gentlemen's crimes that put them there in the first place until the closing credits. Spoiler alert: They're rapists and murderers, all. What an interesting challenge that could have posed had the filmmaker trusted his audience enough to chew through it.
Apart from the fact that the country, blues and gospel songs presented by Chiarelli and her lost souls are too edgeless for the music-doc packaging, withheld information also promptly sours the vibe. Endless blather about faith and mistakes made is allowed to hang in the air throughout, unexamined by de facto narrator Chiarelli, while the inspiration for her mission is never made clear. Besides that, where are the younger, brasher inmates in all this? A cynical person would wonder whether Chiarelli's musical enlightenment doesn't play quite as well with criminals not yet subdued by age and wear.
It's great that Chiarelli is able to feel good about the show, and the prisoners are certainly thankful for the distraction in the end. But how should we the audience feel about all of this? Music from the Big House lacks the clearheadedness to answer that or many other questions.
Rita Chiarelli Q&A and performance
6:30 p.m. Tuesday,
1300 S. Orlando Ave., Maitland