The lines of societal demarcation that separate us have no jurisdiction in the musical world. People from different races and cultures are free to collaborate and travel wherever their muse guides them. All they need is the courage to breach the artificial boundaries between them.
It’s unlikely that Adam Gussow wanted to change the world when he approached Sterling “Mr. Satan” Magee on a Harlem street corner back in 1986. All this Jewish, Ivy League-educated musician wanted was a chance to play his harmonica with the blues legend that locals called a “Harlem landmark.”
Their eventual musical partnership and spiritual connection forms the rhythm section of Satan & Adam, but its thematic beats are more profound. What starts as a simple, albeit exhaustively compiled documentary about a musical “odd couple” emerges as a profound statement about survival.
Appropriately enough, director V. Scott Balcerek opens his story in gritty black and white. The Harlem of the 1980s was a racial powder keg. With the shadow of looming gentrification just a few years away, Gussow’s decision to approach Mr. Satan seems all the more foolhardy in retrospect.
A graduate student at Columbia who possessed some mean harmonica skills, Gussow proved the perfect complement to his volatile old mentor. Sterling Magee cut his teeth as a session player for the likes of Etta James and Marvin Gaye, as well as backing up Ray Charles on his influential Tangerine Records label back in the ‘60s. Backstabbing between musicians and unscrupulous promoters (most of them white) quickly soured Magee on the industry. He retreated to the “security” of 125th Street in Harlem, changed his name to Satan, and became a one-man-band of vocals, guitar, and snare drum.
The film’s highlight, which Balcerek wisely returns to again and again, is the performance mastery of Magee. His voice, hewn from a gravelly snarl of pain and fury, is almost primordial in its urgency. This is not a blues practitioner of regret and woe; this is a wailing spirit trying to (re)connect with the forces that hold him down and/or lift him up. His music isn’t a reflection of emotion, it’s an exorcism.
“I held on for dear life!” Gussow remembers of the early days, likening Magee’s strident groove to ocean waves pounding the shore. Gussow’s clean-cut good looks and middle class pedigree made him an unlikely ambassador for racial relations. It was only after a confrontation with bystanders, several of whom intimated that his safety might be at risk that Gussow decided he was strong enough to “play the blues for real.” To attack the music with dedication and a full appreciation for his environment and the stakes involved. He figured he owed that much to Mr. Satan for taking him on as a youthful apprentice.
Satan & Adam benefits enormously from Gussow and Magee’s enthusiastic involvement with the project. Considering Balcerek began filming in 1995 and continued intermittently for more than 20 years, it’s a minor miracle that his aging subjects even survived, let alone cooperated the entire time.
Archival footage and interviews, both from Balcerek and casual observers on the street, reveals a duality between two men that transcended their disparate backgrounds. Theirs was a collaboration of two spirits obsessed with engaging life through the creation of music.
“Keep walking forward,” Gussow insists, asserting both his personal mantra, as well as the film’s central theme.
Satan & Adam actually represents the intertwining stories of four men struggling to follow their artistic passions through life. Gussow’s search for artistic affirmation pushed him well beyond both his musical and social comfort zone. Balcerek’s 23-year cinematic undertaking might have ended many times were it not for his dedication to telling a truthful story.
It’s Magee and his devilish alter ego, however, that proves most fascinating. His wild eyes and ever-present smile belie a sadness lurking below the fury, and his tenuous grasp on reality remains unsettling throughout the film. When Magee speaks of the Earth being made of the blues, or hatches an outlandish numerological theory about spirituality, one is reminded of a professional wrestler’s fevered ramblings as he postures before his next heavyweight bout.
Balcerek doesn’t hide the schism between Magee’s split personalities. Mr. Satan attacks life through his music, living completely in each moment like a singular composition. Sterling Magee wanders the streets like a rudderless old man, struggling to suppress the fear and anger over indiscretions past and opportunities lost. It’s this dichotomy within Magee, more so than his unlikely pairing with Gussow, that helps Satan & Adam transcend the routine music documentary.
Those looking for the curious story of two seemingly mismatched blues icons will find plenty of musical inspiration in Satan & Adam. Those searching for something a bit deeper will find a moving story of friendship, humanity and, ultimately, re-birth. It’s an unassuming little gem that lures you in with the music and sends you away with a better understanding of what it means to be human.