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Playing The Blues While Inside Prison Walls

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Filmed at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, “Music From the Big House,” Bruce McDonald’s loosely built documentary, yields the cognitive dissonance of being entertained by performers convicted of rape, murder and other offenses.

The Canadian blues singer Rita Chiarelli acts as our ambassador to a realm of life sentences and strained redemption as she and the inmates put on a concert within this notorious prison known as Angola, formerly the site of a slave plantation.

The mostly soul, blues and spirituals heard in jam sessions and performances — some are rousing — sound like what one might hear in church. It’s all part of a long musical tradition at Angola, where the bluesman Leadbelly was apparently released on the basis of his talent. As if spiritually cleansing, black-and-white photography captures prisoners today as they not only belt out songs on a humble stage but also ruminate on coping with the past.

This low-key film, which uses a Brian Eno track for ambience during filler shots of prison common areas, gets across a general notion of music as universal solace. But the filmmakers hesitate at going deeper into the dark places of the prisoners’ biographies and the storied prison itself. The one wouldn’t exist without the other, and Ms. Chiarelli’s rambling platitudes are no substitute. Perhaps Mr. McDonald, a fellow Canadian who directed the low-budget 1989 cult film “Roadkill” and the innovative horror film “Pontypool,” says it best: After one convict’s musings about making apologies, we see a moving rendition of a song about laying one’s burden down.


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