Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Music hath charms... in Sam Bathrick's new prison documentary, 16 BARS

We've seen theatre in prison previously -- including Shakespeare behind bars, and once even via the Taviani brothers -- as an aid to the rehabilitation process, so why the hell not try rehab with music? That is what the musician Todd Thomas (better known as the rapper "Speech" from the band Arrested Development) tries to do in the new music-in-prison documentary 16 BARS. "Speech," along with some of the prisoners with whom he works while encouraging and coaching them, manages this surprisingly well -- as do the inmates themselves. Musically, at least. The men have some major problems in some other areas of their rehabilitation.

As directed by Sam Bathrick, shown at left, one of the strengths of this slow-building but finally quite effective doc, is the manner in which it refuses to shy away from the very real and continuing problems the prisoners face as they try their best to work toward rehabilitation.

In many, if not most, cases these guys have a childhood and/or young adulthood of bad training/parenting to overcome in order to even begin any real kind of rehab.

Bathrick and "Speech" concentrate on four inmates in Richmond, Virginia -- three black would-be rappers and one white somewhat-country-sounding prisoner, all of whose stories we slowly learn.

The four prisoners -- Anthony (above), De'vonte, Garland and Teddy (below) -- are all highly problemed (Devonte perhaps has the least problems of the four) but their stories and personalities pull us in and have us rooting for each of them, even as we slowly come to realize the major difficulties facing these men.

Their personal stories vie with the music portions of the documentary for our attention in a manner that, initially at least, seems a bit clunky. By the finale, however, the two have come together in a way that works well both rationally and emotionally.

The song we hear over the final scene, as title cards tell us what has happened to each of these men, provides a kind of uplift to the downbeat news on screen that may make you better understand and appreciate why music outlives all of us in the end. (One of songs by the hugely tattooed Garland, shown above, also reflects this quite well.)

The movie takes its time to percolate and jell -- to badly mix a coffee and pudding metaphor -- but hold on through a few slow scenes and some repetition and you will be duly rewarded. (Shown above, right, is "Speech" Thomas at work with Anthony.)

From Lightyear Entertainment and running 95 minutes, 16 Bars opens theatrically this Friday, November 8, in New York City (at the Village East Cinema) and then on November 15 in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Monica Film Center.

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