‘16 Bars’ Review: Inmates Find the Beat

The documentary “16 Bars” is constructed around a workshop that Todd Thomas — a.k.a. Speech of the Atlanta hip-hop group Arrested Development — led at a jail in Richmond, Va., in 2017. Thomas helped inmates make music in a recording studio on site; the workshop was part of a voluntary program designed to reduce recidivism rates.

The movie, directed by Sam Bathrick, follows Thomas and four participants during the process. In Garland Carr, whose country tunes (and a bluesy spiritual) provide the movie with some elegiac interludes, Thomas sees “a superstar that may never be, because he’s behind bars.” Perhaps the most volatile arc comes from Anthony Johnston, who keeps receiving sanctions that threaten his continued involvement in the program.

Thomas notes that he is taken aback by one of Johnston’s lyrics: “Time is just a deadly weapon waiting for you to slip up.” Thomas is startled by the hopelessness in that sentiment, in a moment of the kind of musical analysis that “16 Bars” might have had more of.

The movie emphasizes the difficulty of breaking cycles of addiction, crime and incarceration. Not everyone onscreen winds up better off by the end. Teddy Kane, who was released before filming began but came back to record with Thomas after Thomas heard his demo, struggles outside the walls.

The individual stories have moments of power, but “16 Bars” feels abbreviated. It only sometimes transcends its role as an awareness tool and reveals the texture and detail that long-term documentary filming can produce.

16 Bars

Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes.

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