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Review: Music From the Big House

Ken Korman on a new documentary about musicians inside Angola State Prison



Canadian roots musician Rita Chiarelli chased the ghosts of bluesman Robert Pete Williams and folksinger Lead Belly (among others) all the way to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where these legendary Louisiana musicians long ago made their names. What Chiarelli found was something unexpected: a lesson in forgiveness, especially as it applies to incarcerated men often dismissed by society as unworthy. Another result of Chiarelli's Angola visits was Music From the Big House, a soft-spoken and apolitical documentary about prisoners — many serving life sentences without hope for parole — who find a little redemption by playing heartfelt soul, blues, country and gospel in what may be the least joyous place on earth.

  Shot in atmospheric black and white by Canadian director Bruce McDonald, the film takes place over the course of a week at Angola. It follows a group of talented inmates as they prepare to sing and play with Chiarelli at a concert for fellow prisoners and their families. Interspersed among the musical scenes are one-on-one conversations between Chiarelli and the musicians that quietly draw out their humanity and render politics irrelevant. Some audiences reportedly have responded negatively to information at the end of the film that includes inmates' individual crimes. But anything else would have been dishonest. The truth may hurt, but there's no shot at forgiveness without it. — KEN KORMAN

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