Home Video Hovel: Music From the Big House, by Sarah Brinks
Music from the Big House is about a Canadian blue singer named Rita Chiarelli who finds herself putting on a concert with a group of inmates at Angola prison in Louisiana. Rita came across Angola prison while she was on a “pilgrimage” to learn about the origins of blues music, which is her passion. When she came to the prison, she thought she would put on a concert for the inmates, but as she started to spend time there, she realized there was some amazing music being created within Angola’s walls. She then decided to let the inmates in on the fun.
Angola prison has a bloody, terrible history that began immediately following the Civil War and continuing until about twenty years ago. For most of its history, the life expectancy of the inmates was roughly ten years. Now Angola has made some serious changes and is far less violent and much safer for everyone there. Angola is also famous for the music that has been recorded there, most famously by “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, who originally sang “Goodnight Irene.” The story goes that the governor of Louisiana pardoned him after hearing it.
The film shows the few days leading up to the concert and much of the concert itself. We see the prisoners rehearsing, working with Rita on songs. She’ll bring the start of a song, and work with the inmates to find the rest of it together; the resulting song, “Rest My Bones,” really finds a new life when the inmates start putting their spin on it.
Rita does informal interviews with many of the prisoners who perform in the concert. She talks to them about their life in prison, what they have learned there, their history with music, and their contact with their families and friends. She does not ask them about the crimes they committed that got them incarcerated. I really liked this approach because you got to see the men as they are now and their relationship to music. You have “drummer” and “guitarist” as your labels, rather than “murderer” or “rapist.”
Right before the end credits, you see the inmates names with their crimes and sentences. It is easy while watching this film to forget that these talented musicians are also violent offenders and even though many of them appear to have been rehabilitated and to truly see the error of their ways, there were victims of their crimes and they are criminals. Several of the inmates speak to that point in their interviews; it sometimes takes ten or twenty years in a prison like Angola to really understand the full weight of their crimes, and to even recognize that there were actual victims of their choices.
One inmate whom Rita spends most of her time with, and seems to have a real connection to, is an older inmate named Ray Jones. Jones has been in Angola for over thirty years, serving a life sentence. He is the law librarian at Angola and has found God in his time there. Jones is deeply religious and deeply committed to his own rehabilitation and the rehabilitation of others in the prison. He has an amazing smile and laugh and he is a really interesting man. You see why Rita has gravitated towards him. He is charismatic and charming, even inside the walls of a prison.
Rita admits that it is hard for her to see how these men live and how hard prison life is. She feels for them because she has gotten to know them. However, she never looses sight of the fact that these men are criminals, and they they all did something to get into prison. The prisoners she interacts with are all men who have earned privileges. They earned the right to play music and put on the concert through good behavior. It is sad though when you see their living conditions and their faces when it is mail day or visiting day. It is hard to imagine a life where you never pick you own meal, never just hop in your car and go for a drive, or see your family unsupervised again.
One thing that many of the inmates talk about is hope. They have to find a way to find hope in a place like Angola. Many of them use music as a way to keep hope and faith alive for themselves. There is a saying that is repeated many times throughout the film – “In Louisiana: life means life.” Rita explains that, in the state of Louisiana, it is possible for a parole board to shorten a sentence, but it is extremely rare, so most of the men that we see in the film will die in Angola Prison and they know it. However, the men that we meet in the film are mostly positive. They have found religion and music, which keeps them moving forward.
Sections of the concert are shown with interviews or a look at prison life between the songs. Using this technique, the filmmakers are able to use a sort of ‘call and response’ technique by playing a song and showing how it is reflected in prison life. It is very effective and understated. You also get to enjoy some really good music, both by the inmates and Rita. Rita sings with each group in their various styles and even wrote some original music for the concert.
Shot in black and white (except for a little bit of color footage of the concert from Louisiana Public Television), the film is not only gorgeous, but serves a multitude of purposes. It helps to show the starkness of prison, emphasizing the difference between life in prison and outside, and it mirrors the difference between freedom and incarceration. There are shots of Louisiana and the bayou that are just breath-taking and the final shot of the film is stunning and deeply moving; I might even say perfect.
I watched the Blu-ray of the film, and, as I mentioned, it is beautiful. There are several special features including more concert footage; additional prison footage, including a nice interview with the warden; and a film of stills. I also have to call out some of the most beautiful box and menu art I’ve seen. One of the very early shots in the film is a static long-shot of a group or prisoners walking down the road with shovels over their shoulders. The Blu-ray and the main menu uses that shot and overlays it on a musical scale making the prisoners look like music notes. The “special features” menu shows hands reaching through the center hole of a guitar and holding the guitar strings like prison bars, it is beautiful and tragic at the same time. I know this has nothing to do with the film but it was such a nice touch I wanted to mention it in my review.
I loved this film. It is entertaining, educational, beautiful, and tragic. At a quick eighty-seven minutes it is an easy watch. I can recommend this to anyone, especially music fans. The Blu-ray looks great and has some nice special features.