Canadian roots musician Rita Chiarelli chased the ghosts of bluesman Robert Pete Williams and folksinger Lead Belly (among others) all the way to Angola Prison, where these legendary Louisiana musicians long ago made their names. What Chiarelli found there was something unexpected: a lesson in forgiveness, especially as it might apply 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 personal 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 one 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 respond negatively to information that arrives at the end of the film and includes inmates' individual crimes. But anything else would have been dishonest. The truth may hurt, but there’s no shot at forgiveness without it.
Music From the Big House debuted at last year's New Orleans Film Festival and begins a one-week run at Zeitgeist Movies, 1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., at 7 p.m. tonight, July 27. This evening's screening will be followed by a musical performance and Q&A with Rita Chiarelli.