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Movie Review: Music from the Big House

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Name an emotion and I think you’ll find it in this film, sometimes when you least expect it.  For some emotions, you’ll have to be fast to catch them.  For other emotions, it’s the very glue that holds everything together, it’s the paint that covers it, It’s the material it’s made of.  There’s no escape.

I don’t have to tell you what this film is about since the title says it all, succinctly.  It’s also a story of the quest of one woman, a Canadian blueswoman, Rita Chiarelli, that began ten years ago and is culminating with this film.

The opening scenes set the mood for the film, to some extent.  A lonesome Louisiana bayou, fog-covered, the lament of a foghorn in the background.  A railroad crossing, one of those old, 1950s-era-type warning signs guarding it.  No lowered gates, no flashing lights.  People were smarter then, I guess.  They didn’t need several thousand dollars’ worth of signs and warnings and gates to warn of something that anybody with the sense that God gave a pissant has the common sense to avoid.  One wooden post, two metal strips in an “X” shape saying “Railroad Crossing.” The crossing itself isn’t paved or improved, except for somebody depositing a few railroad ties between the tracks to soften the ride when crossing them.

If there were street signs here, this would be the corner of Plum and Damn … Plumb outta town and Damn near outta civilization.

Swamps.  Abandoned, derelict buildings.  A horse munching some grass.  Bare trees.  All these stark scenes add to the impression.  A cemetery with all the crypts aboveground.  A broad expanse of water with a dozen trees growing in its midst.

The imagery is breathtaking in its majesty, its beauty, and its overpowering desolation.

A boat traversing a bayou, one man at the tiller.  Chris Morrison, riverboat guide, is telling us an abbreviated history of the thousands of acres that comprise Angola, the Louisiana State Prison, and its tales of abuse, murder, rape, and general corruption, all at the expense of the mostly (85%) black prisoners kept there.  Morrison talks of the desolate and terrible conditions today, then asks us to imagine what the place was like before air conditioning, before decent meals, before it was safe to so much as walk to the latrine.

No, thanks.

A bus with the letters “LSP” across the front on a remote stretch of road leading to a large area, fenced and razor-wired, with manned guard towers dotting the landscape, and a straggly line of prisoners, all black that I could see except for possibly one, with armed guards, both on foot and on horseback, watching their every move—that is our welcome.  Then Rita Chiarelli begins telling us the genesis of the film, the whys and hows.

Chiarelli, a Canadian musician, formed the concept during her “road trip,” which every true-blue bluesman and woman takes at some point in life.  She started her trip ten years ago, traveling the famous, and infamous, Highway 61, sung about by everybody from hundreds of country blues singers to latecomers such as Bob Dylan, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and Joe Bonamassa.

Robert Pete Williams and Freddie Fender pass through Angola’s walls, and of course most people know the story of how Leadbelly was pardoned, singing himself out of prison not once, but twice, for murder.

Odea Matthews, with the sound of a sewing machine in counterpoint to her a capella voice.

The first third of the film is familiarization, for Rita, with the prison, the rules, the men, and their abilities as musicians.  Prisoners are undergoing familiarization, too. The remainder of the film is pure pleasure written on the faces of the prisoners in the audience, as well as some insightful observations on knowing that one will spend the rest of one’s life inside these walls.

The pathos, the care, the understanding and the integrity of the cameraman (men?) in the pursuit of their trade are remarkable.  The simple symbolism of birds landing on the barbed wire topping the fences is a poignant moment.  Another particularly emotional moment is the final scene.  When a prison group called the Jazzmen takes the stage, doing for their first song, a version of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” the audience reacts.  You see one middle-aged man responding to the music of his youth, just as he probably had done when the music was hot on the charts.  Hope still lives.

At the end of the day, and at the end of every song they sing, they’re still in prison.

But the music gives them hope.

Music from the Big House is available only on the festival circuit in Canada at the moment, while decisions from the committees at Sundance or South by Southwest are still pending.  Producer Jennifer St. John said, “We are also in discussions with both Canadian and American distributors and are hoping to be able to announce some news soon. However, at this time, the film does not have any theatrical dates or DVD release dates available.  The best way to keep in the know is to follow us on Facebook or on the film’s website.”

This is a must-see film for blues buffs, but it’s not a film that only blues buffs will enjoy.  Rather, it’s a film that anybody with hope in his heart will appreciate.  Two quotes that best summarize the film:

“There’s incredible music coming out of this place…The songs that I heard were raw and real.” 

“Life means life.”

Music from the Big House deserves broad distribution, and blues fans can insure that it is at least considered by local and regional film distributors.  Blues fans and blues societies worldwide can—and should—make it happen.

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About Lou Novacheck