Rita Chiarelli is an excellent blues singer from Canada. In the film Music From the Big House, she visits Louisiana’s infamous Louisiana State Maximum Security Penitentiary, better known as Angola Prison, to perform with some of the prisoners there. Although the film centers around a music concert, it is about much more than that. It is about hope in a place full of hopelessness, and about the power of faith and music to inspire and uplift even the worst of us.
Angola has the reputation for having been one of the most violent prisons in American history. At the same time, it has a history with folk, country and blues music, with Leadbelly being the most famous former inmate. According to this documentary, it’s much better now, but it’s still stark and full of prisoners, most of whom will there for the rest of their lives. These women and men were not locked up for petty crimes.
But this movie is not a documentary about crime. It is about hope and faith and music.
Curiously, there are no female musicians other than Chiarelli in this film, and the only footage of female inmates is brief. No female inmates are interviewed either, which I found interesting. Also, there is talk about a location within the prison where the worst, and one presumes newer, prisoners are kept, and which may be a lot worse than what is shown in the film.
Nevertheless, both the concert footage and the interviews with the inmates are very interesting. All the musicians have been in prison for a long time, some as long as 20 or 30 years. They do not give details of the crimes they committed. They talk about music and what it means to them and about how God and music have changed them and how they find hope even knowing they will probably never leave the grounds of the prison again. In Louisiana, “life means life,” and there is no appeal process. The percentage of black to white inmates is definitely disproportionate; most of the prisoners are African-Americans
Music from the Big House is a low-key film, not particularly dramatic. But the music is good and the interviews have some unexpected moments. Chiarelli states that when she came there, she did not expect to feel forgiveness, but the experience has made her think about things differently.
Nothing in this film suggests that these men are not guilty; they do not claim, and no one else claims, that they should be set free. However, forgiveness does not require that their sentences be overturned, and sharing these inmates’ music and hearing their stories about how they are today might just inspire viewers to think more charitably about those who have done wrong and are paying the price for it.
While this movie was originally released in 2010, it has just been released on DVD and Blu-ray for the first time, and should find a new audience with this new release.