Music From the Big House

Music From the Big House

DVD - 2012
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Rita Chiarelli's exploration of Louisiana's Angola Prison, its inmates and the blues music tradition they perform with her.
Publisher: [United States] : Gaiam, [2012]
Branch Call Number: DVD 782.421643 M973
Characteristics: 1 videodisc (80 min.) : sd., col. ; 4 3/4 in


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Feb 18, 2015

This is a powerful, moving documentary, and not just the concert film that I expected. I'd recommend it not only to fans of the blues and popular music, but to anyone interested in prisons, in social matters, or in the culture of the deep south-- in fact, to anyone who appreciates a good documentary.

Old American prison films taught us that "the Big House" is slang for "the penitentiary." Rita Chiarelli, an outstanding Canadian blues singer, on a "pilgrimage" down Highway 61 to "the home of the blues," meaning the Mississippi Delta or deep south generally, came across Louisiana State Maximum Security Prison at "Angola", famed as the site of some of Alan Lomax's important field recordings of a number of blues singers, including Lead Belly. (Only the person who wrote the liner notes calls Angola Prison the "Birthplace of the Blues" -- do these people watch the movies?) Rita dropped in. Her visit led to a ten-year relationship with the prison and its prisoners, resulting in the concert that is the focus of this film.

Prisoners who perform along with Rita are excellent musicians and singers, less in Rita's specialty, blues, than in country, funk, and gospel. Any of Angola's musical groups would excite a crowd at an Ottawa music festival. The obvious mutual respect and warmth between Rita and the prisoners makes one forget at times that these musicians are or were violent men. In a short extra, the prison warden and a staff person tell us that this 18,000 Acre prison farm (the size of Manhattan) is home to 5,200 inmates, 88% in for violent offences, and 96-97% in for life. And "in Louisiana, life means life." The warden does not gloss over Angola's brutal past, but the penitentiary now seems relatively humane, keeping in mind that the prisoners we're seeing are a well-behaved bunch who have earned many privileges. All seem to be middle-aged or older, with virtually no young men to be seen. The warden encourages music. As one prisoner says, "when you sing you're not angry." Still, even our limited view assures us that Angola isn't a place where we would want to spend a short time, let alone life.

Rita Chiarelli's experiences in Angola greatly affected her. She felt that working with the prisoners caused her considerable personal growth. Music from The Big House examines prison life, religion, issues surrounding incarceration, and relationships both among prisoners and with their families, showing both pathos and humour. The movie makes no apologies for the incarceration of these men -- they are in this prison for doing bad things, and have left victims behind. Yet, we're able to see their humanity. In essence, this is a movie about the complexities of being human. The extras are well worth watching, with fine concert scenes and short, interesting interviews. If you have trouble at times with accents, so does Rita, who tells a prisoner, "I'm Canadian; we hear funny."

May 31, 2013

What a great film. Stunning black and white photography, wonderful music and a straight from the heart story.


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