Travis Leamons // Film Critic
SATAN & ADAM
Everyone has had a moment where he feels helpless, or sad, or mad at the world. How we choose to react can show our true identity.
Adam Gussow had one of those moments in 1986 New York. He was feeling pretty low after his girlfriend dumped him. Distraught, Adam walked from his apartment and hopped on a train to Harlem’s 125th Street with a harmonica in his pocket. Taking the stairs to street level, Adam could see the Apollo Theater in the distance. He stopped short when he heard a street musician singing the blues while strumming away on a guitar and operating a snare drum with his foot. When Adam asked another spectator about the musician, he was met with a surprising answer: “Satan.”
The spectator added, “Everyone around here knows Satan.” Impressed with Mr. Satan’s playing, Adam worked up the nerve to see if he could join. Mr. Satan agreed and Adam whipped out his harmonica and started to play. The crowd loved it.
Adam had those heartbreak blues and felt lost. Then he met Mr. Satan and the two formed a friendship that would mean everything. Just as they were getting into a groove, however, the rhythm changes and Mr. Satan vanished. Adam was lost again.
V. Scott Balcerek’s SATAN & ADAM explores the personal friendship and professional partnership of two artists who couldn’t be more dissimilar. Adam Gussow is a young, white Jewish Ivy League grad student. Sterling “Mr. Satan” Magee is an old, black seasoned professional having played for the likes of Etta James, Marvin Gaye, and Little Anthony and the Imperials. Magee’s experiences in the music industry were soured by exploitation and backstabbing. He left the business to play on the streets of Harlem, dropping his name so that he could spread the gospel of the blues as Satan.
Not going to lie, the curiosity of seeing a pair of mismatched blues musicians is what drew me to this documentary. That, and its title. Wading through the superabundance of content Netflix offers, it’s so easy to breeze through listings. Unless your movie has the word “Satan” in the title. That catches your eyeballs long enough for you to slow down and read a synopsis.
While I had never heard of blues duo Satan and Adam, to discover their notoriety came at the behest of members of U2 (lead guitarist The Edge, in particular) as they walked through the streets of Harlem in the summer of 1987 is nice factual nugget. As was learning 38 seconds of Magee’s original composition “Freedom for My People” was included in the documentary and subsequent U2 album RATTLE AND HUM.
For twenty odd years, Balcerek shot footage of Satan and Adam on the streets of Harlem, inside of bars, and on the road as their popularity grew. He had no clear idea of what the story would be or where it would lead. That would depend on Satan and Adam. From playing for dollar bills on street corners to achieving billboard success, the documentary charts the changes in both men.
Adam is the most vocal in the documentary, guiding us through his ascension as a despondent grad student that becomes the boy wonder apprentice to Satan the Bluesman. Adam may be telling his story, but in reality, the story really belongs to Magee and his alter ego. To watch him perform is to see a man possessed. With every chord struck, with every gravelly-voiced line he sings, he bears his spirit with every performance.
Away from the stage, though, his aura wanes and Mr. Satan becomes crotchety Mr. Magee. This is especially true when we are introduced to Satan’s lady friend, who tends to be a real she-devil. She causes a schism, and Magee abruptly leaves Harlem with her and suffers a nervous breakdown.
Riding that wave of success only to crash and wipe out should have been a deathblow. But a rough patch in a friendship is just a sour note by another name. Just out of favor, not out of tune.
The magic of SATAN & ADAM is the power to keep walking forward. Balcerek captures the setbacks that befall most musical acts to show how the two men were able to transcend dissimilar backgrounds and follow their passions, ruminate on individual strengths and weaknesses. And through that, they found the ultimate truth: The blues never leave you.
SATAN & ADAM is now streaming on Netflix.