(Bruce McDonald, Canada, 2010, 90 mins.)

  • Caché Film and Television
  • Ray Jones (Pure Heart Messengers) singing in the prison chapel

"I've done a lot of foolish things that I really didn't mean."
—Stevie Wonder, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" (performed by the Jazzmen)

In his latest documentary, Toronto iconoclast Bruce McDonald (Hardcore Logo, Pontypool) ventures to the Deep South to examine the solace music brings to a group of incarcerated men. Canadian blues musician Rita Chiarelli originally planned to perform on her own at Louisiana's Angola State Penitentiary, but when she hears what the inmates have to offer, she decides a joint venture makes more sense. As she notes in the introduction, Freddie Fender and Leadbelly are two of the many talents to emerge from Angola; the place has a musical legacy.

McDonald follows her around as she plays originals and covers, like "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" and "Midnight Special" (most famously performed by Leadbelly), with three outfits, including a vocal group. The participants come from country, funk, and classic rock backgrounds. Instead of interviewing the prisoners, the director has Chiarelli ask them where they're from and how they got into music.

Bass player Laird "Magic" Veillon, a white guy, tells her that Mothership Connection marked his first record purchase. His favorite track: "Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)," an apt choice for a man confined to the same facility for decades. Drummer Calvin "Texas" Lewis, a black guy, cites Neil Peart as his favorite player—I love it that these men aren't as easy to peg as you might think.

Chiarelli doesn't reference their crimes, but no one seems like a threat. She does state, however, that a life sentence in Louisiana means just that—the parole board can reduce a sentence, but they rarely do. After a while, though, it seems like a cheat that McDonald doesn't disclose the laws they broke. These inmates may have grown and changed since their convictions, but their current address isn't a matter of coincidence. They may have been trying to defend themselves or to provide for their families, but they still did something. It isn't irrelevant.

Fortunately, a few of them start to open up around the hour mark, possibly because they've grown accustomed to the filmmaker, his crew, and Chiarelli, who's visited their institution several times. As expected: they killed some people, though they don't go into much detail. The Christian rhetoric can get a little old—several of them "found God" in prison—but their regret rings true. In the closing credits, however, McDonald provides the missing info: what they did (burglary, rape, second degree murder) and the sentences they received.

Further, he shot the film primarily in black and white, and allows each man his dignity. Regardless as to the actions that brought them to Angola, each one emerges as a human being with a particular take on his world, no matter how small it may seem. The most compelling moments take place around the performances: scenes in which they simply go about their day, playing basketball in the yard, working in the factories, and reconnecting with loved ones in the visiting room. As Chiarelli states, "When you're singing, you're not angry," and I've rarely seen a prison film with so little anger, bitterness, and resentment on display.

  • Caché Film and Television

Music from the Big House opens at the Northwest Film Forum on Fri., June 22. Special performance by Rita Chiarelli on Sat. at 7pm. More information here.