As far as prisons go Angola Prison in Louisiana has a rough reputation. It has been known to house some of the South’s most violent criminals and as a result the going ons on the inside are rather unruly. Canadian blues musician Rita Chiarelli had a program in mind for Angola Prison which she thought would benefit inmates.
Director Bruce McDonald (Hard Core Logo) had decided to tell the story of Rita, the inmates and the power of music in his latest documentary. Originally released in 2010, Music From the Big House shows how Rita brings music to the inmates and instills hope in what had previously been thought of as a write-off population. Rita decides that she is going to put on a concert in the prison for the inmates highlighting country and blues music. After forming three different bands in the prison – The Jazzmen, Little Country and Pure Heart Messenger – she sets about teaching them how to play together.
Because of the documentary McDonald has gained access to parts of prison life we don’t usually get to see. Though the focus is not on the prison, but rather the inmates themselves. These men might be criminals who are spending a good chunk of time in prison but they aim to do something with their lives. Rita educates them about music and encourages them to be the best they can be. Between the footage of the music and practicing, McDonald has interviewed the inmates involved in the music and what you get from them is off enlightening and emotional. Many of these men do feel regret for what they have done and want to do better. Music has truly become therapy within the confines of Angola Prison.
I was divided over whether McDonald did the film and the men a service or disservice by not revealing their crimes to the viewer until the credits were rolling. Then we learn of the violence these older men have done in their lives. Was it better to establish them as human beings trying to make themselves better without allowing our biases created by the horrific nature of the crimes they had committed to blur our judgment? Or should he have been up front from the beginning and allowed us to make our own choices? I kinda felt manipulated as a result…but not everyone will feel that way.
-Additional Performances, Deleted Scenes, “These Four Walls”