Directed by Bruce McDonald, best known for films like Highway 61 and Hard Core Logo, 2013's Music From The Big House sees the director take on a documentary feature. He's worked on documentary projects before, but this one is… different. Music has played a huge part in his filmography since his feature debut, Roadkill, released way back in 1989.
The movie follows Rita Chiarelli, the Canadian "the goddess of Canadian blues," (who contributed soundtrack work to some of McDonald's earlier films) as she travels south of the border to Louisiana State Maximum Security Penitentiary (better known as Angola Prison, this place literally used to be a slave plantation) where she worked personally with a host of inmates. The prison has a rich history with music, the blues specifically, and the documentary brings us up to speed on that early on but the focus here is on Chiarelli working with the different incarcerated men as three separate groups are formed, eventually for a planned performance.
As Chiarelli starts working with these men, she, and by default the audience, gets to know a bit about them. These guys aren't going anywhere anytime soon, many of them are going to die behind these prison walls and never again live as free men. As such, they've got some problems but it's interesting and downright heartwarming at times to see how their involvement in these musical endeavors brightens their spirits and quite literally gives them something to live for. Without a whole lot more to do inside the prison than stand around and wait to die, the collaboration with Chiarelli winds up meaning a whole lot more to these men, some of them even convicted murderers, than it probably would to anyone in the outside world. The music they make takes on great importance and it's genuinely a delight to see the change that it can and very often does bring to a group that most of us would see as hardened criminals.
McDonald and his crew shoot all of this on digital video in high contrast black and white. This takes an already bleak location and quite literally sucks all the color out of it, really hammering home the destitution that these guys must feel, day in, day out. Outside of that, however, the camera work is beautiful in its simplicity. Something as simple as a close up of an inmate once he's really given himself over to working on this can tell more than any narration or dialogue really can. It's all presented very matter-of-factly and in the context of the documentary's reason for being, it works very well.
Of course, a large part of the draw is going to be the music itself. It's here that the movie tends to put a little too much emphasis on Chiarelli herself, rather than the inmates. Granted, she's a seasoned player and a very talented woman but we wind up with large chunks of the film that focus more on her than on the inmates, all of whom are very interesting guys. Had the documentary focused a bit more on them and given just a little more of their personalities and backstories, it probably would have worked better than it does. Even with that fault, however, Music From The Big House is an interesting and unique movie that works as both a piece of social commentary and an essay of sorts on the power of music itself.
Music From The Big House arrives on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 1.78.1 widescreen. The black and white image (there are a few short bits from the concert in color, presented in fullframe as they were taken from the prison's own video system), shot in HD, is pretty strong. Contrast is properly set and black levels are inky and solid. There are, obviously, no issues to not with any print damage or debris and the image is free of any obvious video noise. Texture is good, we get an interesting visual contrast between the skin tones of the inmates and the concrete and steel of the prison. There are some archival clips used throughout the feature that aren't of the same quality but they work well in the context of the narrative and you can't fault the transfer for the lesser quality of these clips.
The only audio option provided on the Blu-ray is an English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track, unfortunately there is no lossless audio option. For a standard definition 2.0 mix what's here sounds just fine but for a movie that is as heavy on the music as this one is, it's a shame that this release doesn't take full advantage of what the Blu-ray format will allow. Regardless, dialogue is clean, clear and well balanced and the musical bits sound good. This is fine for what it is but no doubt some fans will be irritated by the tech specs in regards to this mix.
Extras are slim but we do get three bonus scenes (Warden Talk: The Angola Prison, Music For The Soul and LSP TV), four additional live musical bits (Harvest Time, Mississippi Boy, Mother Prays For Me and Rain On Me) and a music video for the song ‘These Four Walls' that was featured in the movie. Menus and chapter selection are also provided.
Music From The Big House is an interesting and at times very moving film, a unique look at prison life that offers some poignant insight into the history and meaning of the blues in addition to painting some fascinating portraits of some very real people. It's a prison documentary unlike any other and very much worth seeing. The Blu-ray release is light on extras and features a lackluster mix but the transfer is solid and because of that and the strength of the feature itself, this release comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.