Music From the Big House

Blues singer Rita Chiarelli joins with inmates at Louisiana's Angola State Penitentiary in the documentary "Music From the Big House."

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Canadian blues legend Rita Chiarelli got more than she bargained for when she visited the notorious Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana. Originally planning to perform a concert for the inmates housed there, Chiarelli ended up coming back again and again, working with some of the musically talented inmates in jam sessions and performances. In the end, they became bandmates, if only for an afternoon in the prison's common room.

That bond is celebrated in the documentary "Music From the Big House," and Chiarelli's commitment to the film and the project extends beyond it. While the movie opens on Friday, Chiarelli will be at Sundance Cinemas in Madison at 7:05 Thursday (tonight) to perform a live show featuring music from the film.

The film is a loose mix of concert film and social commentary, as Chiarelli interviews the musicians, sees the conditions under which they live, and jams with the inmate bands, who play blues, country and gospel tunes. The arrangements aren't tight, but they are often soul-stirring, and the prisoners seem visibly delighted to talk about their musical passions. To hear Calvin Lewis, an African-American drummer, wax rhapsodic about Rush's Neil Peart must warm the hearts of audiences back in Canada.

But there's an obvious, and uneasy, underside to this catharsis. These are hardened criminals, murderers and rapists, and director Bruce McDonald makes the decision not to mention their crimes until the very end of the film. They seem like nice guys, and Chiarelli is visibly sympathetic to the harsh conditions they live in. But I'm sure the families of their victims would feel differently.

I wish "Music From the Big House" would have faced that moral quandary more directly, and while the well-meaning Chiarelli is a classic, gravel-voiced blues belter on stage, offstage she isn't very articulate at explaining her feelings. And she and the film are almost excessively polite about the inmates and their stories, with some interviews devolving into little more than chitchat.

But I think the film does redeem itself at the end, when McDonald shows each of the inmates performing, and then lists the crimes they were convicted of.

It's a gut-punch to see that a man who seemed so polite and unassuming to Chiarelli was convicted of rape, or second-degree murder. How do we reconcile the horror of their crimes with the humanity of their music? "Big House" could have gone much deeper in tackling this question, but it does open the door.