Review: ‘Music from the Big House’ keeps distance

Even with a gripping subject like blues-singing convicts, the documentary “Music from the Big House” has a disconcerting emotional distance.

Bruce McDonald’s film chronicles fellow Canadian Rita Chiarelli — a gravel-voiced blueswoman — as she joins inmates at Louisiana’s notorious penitentiary Angola for a concert. Though Angola’s musical bonafides are invoked — Lead Belly famously won early release from a governor impressed with his talent — the featured hard-timers belting out soul, gospel and I-got-it-bad classics are more energetic amateurs than unsung finds.

That said, the vibe isn’t that of a concert film anyway — it would be more rousing if it were — but of a stark black-and-white-photographed meditation with spiritual confession interviews, snoozy ambient music and snippets of performance footage that feel like afterthoughts.

Chiarelli is left in the uncomfortable position of being more an emotional emcee on an art project than the clear band-jam talent she is when we see her mixing it up onstage with the guys.



“Music From the Big House.” No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes. At Laemmle’s Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills.