The one thing you should see this week: a film about a prison with a storied musical past

The one thing you should see this week: a film about a prison with a storied musical past

Rita Chiarelli and inmate Ray Jones in Music from the Big House (Image: Caché Film and Television) 

This week’s pick: Music from the Big House

Bruce McDonald is no stranger to the power of music. He’s built a large part of his career around it as the director of the punk mockumentary Hard Core Logo, the kinda-sorta concert film This Movie is Broken and the rock drama Trigger. His latest project sees him diverge, but only slightly: music is still the name, but documentary filmmaking is now the game.

McDonald’s new film, Music from the Big House, follows Hamilton singer Rita Chiarelli as she puts on a decidedly unusual concert in the heart of Louisiana. The seed for the project was planted when Chiarelli set out on a pilgrimage to the Deep South, the birthplace of the blues. After coming across a sign for Angola, Louisiana’s maximum-security state prison, she called up the warden and asked for a tour. The prison has a storied musical history: Odea Mathews was an inmate back when there was a wing for women, and a (somewhat dubious) legend has it that Lead Belly was released after the governor heard him sing. Today’s inmates aren’t so lucky: in Louisiana, a life sentence really does mean life.

Chiarelli has returned to Angola often over the past decade to play soul, blues and country music in the company of men who are dealing with the knowledge that they will likely never see the outside of the prison’s walls again. Her compassionate, blunt demeanor and deep passion for music helped her gain the trust of the inmates, allowing her entry into their lives. We never quite get a full picture of what led them to Angola (they are reticent subjects and their crimes are only revealed at the very end of the doc), but that’s a quibble. The music is the thing here, and what music it is.

McDonald’s beautifully bleak black-and-white images highlight the challenge of finding hope in desolation, but it’s the songs that do the heavy lifting. It took Chiarelli four years to get permission to put on a concert with the inmates, and she only got three days to rehearse and film it. In the world of Angola, this was a high-stakes operation: it was the first time a citizen had performed for inmates and the first time prisoners and their families had the chance to watch a show together.

In one of the doc’s best scenes, Chiarelli gathers four of the inmates out in the yard for an impromptu run-through. Surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers, they work out an arrangement of “Rest My Bones,” a song Chiarelli wrote specifically for the men of Angola. They start, stop and start again—unpolished, imperfect and, for a brief moment, uplifted.

N.B. One of the inmates makes a throwaway reference to “the rodeo” in the first part of the documentary. He’s referring to the Angola Rodeo, the longest-running prison rodeo in the United States. Anyone wanting to know more should pick up Daniel Bergner’s terrific 1999 book, God of the Rodeo.

The details: To March 31. $9. Carlton Cinema, 20 Carlton St., 416-494-9371,