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Even with a gripping subject like blues-singing convicts, the documentary "Music from the Big House" has a disconcerting emotional distance.
Don't look for Elvis in this stark musical doc set in a maximum security prison.
[It] 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.
It finally feels too cautious, as if digging a little deeper might compromise the prevailing tone of tentative uplift.
McDonald's film ultimately boils down to being just another competent but slightly dull prison doc, albeit a toe-tapping one.
The performances are fun, if musically only adequate -- there are no evident virtuosi languishing within Angola's walls -- and Chiarelli's attempts to frame matters philosophically fall a little flat.
When the camera does stray beyond the stage, the cramped, grim conditions are laid bare, the film's lyrical black and white cinematography arrestingly capturing the bleak prison landscape.
I've rarely seen a prison film with so little anger, bitterness, and resentment on display.
The philosophical and therapeutic value of Chiarelli's mission remains intact, but the moment Music from the Big House reveals its manipulation, it immediately deflates.
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.
Music from the Big House middles along as a formless, touristy showcase for Chiarelli.
This is utterly sincere, and there is lasting value in getting violent men to turn their energies to peaceful expression: "When you're singing, you're not angry," Chiarelli says.
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