'Satan & Adam': Film Review

A stranger-than-fiction human interest tale.
4/12/2019

V. Scott Balcerek's documentary recounts the story of the decades-long friendship and partnership of an unlikely musical duo.

The strange but true tale of the unlikely friendship and musical partnership of an Ivy League-educated white man and an older, black street musician told in V. Scott Balcerek's documentary Satan & Adam makes for fascinating viewing. And even as the film captivates, it sparks instant theorizing as to who will play the lead roles in the inevitable Hollywood feel-good dramatization. I'm thinking Ryan Gosling and Samuel L. Jackson.

The story begins in the mid-1980s, when Adam Gussow, a Columbia grad student, dejectedly walked the streets of Harlem after a bad breakup. He came upon "Mr. Satan," a street musician attracting passersby with his powerful blues guitar playing and singing. A blues fan himself, Gussow whipped out his harmonica and nervously asked Mister Satan if he could accompany him. Mister Satan happily agreed, and the two mismatched musicians became an instant hit, their popularity fueled not only by the quality of their playing but also the novelty of their pairing in a pre-gentrified Harlem marked by racial tensions.  

It turned out that Mister Satan was actually Sterling Magee, a well-regarded singer/guitarist who had played with the likes of Etta James, King Curtis and George Benson. Magee had once backed up James Brown at the Apollo Theater, located just a block away from where he was performing on the street, and even had a minor hit on Ray Charles' record label. He had left the music business years earlier, perhaps suffering from some undiagnosed mental illness, and had been busking ever since.

Satan & Adam, as they came to be called, soon became a minor media sensation. Their popularity was further enhanced when U2's Bono and The Edge happened upon them while in Harlem making their concert film Rattle & Hum. The Edge and director Phil Joanou attest to how they were captivated by the blues-playing duo to such a degree that they incorporated them into the movie and album of the same name.

Gussow, interviewed prominently throughout the documentary, recalls how he went to his 10-year college reunion and felt strange telling his former classmates that he was a street musician. He persuaded Magee to enter a recording studio for the first time in many years and sold cassettes after their performances. They eventually attracted the attention of an agent, and things took off further from there. The duo began playing clubs and opened for Buddy Guy at a Central Park concert to an audience of 3,000 people. They also played the prestigious New Orleans Jazz Festival and opened for their musical idol Bo Diddley on a European tour.

Their upward trajectory didn't last, with their story taking many dramatic twists and turns over the ensuing years. The film falters as it proceeds, not always relating the convoluted events with sufficient narrative clarity or chronological coherence. But it benefits greatly from its extensive footage of the duo spanning multiple decades and is always compelling in its chronicling of the loving relationship that developed between them. The story's third act, involving an unlikely rebirth of their musical partnership, proves particularly moving. Let's just say that you won't be able to walk through an assisted living center without wondering what amazing stories its residents might have to tell.

Production companies: RYOT Films, The Kennedy/Marshall Company
Distributor: Cargo Film & Releasing
Director: V. Scott Balcerek
Screenwriters: V. Scott Balcerek, Ryan Suffern
Producers: V. Scott Balcerek, Frank Marshall, J.R. Mitchell, Ryan Suffern
Executive producers: Trevor Birney, Brendan J. Byrne, Daniel Cantagallo, Matt Ippolito, Bryn Mooser, Hayley Pappas, Corey Russell, David Piperni
Directors of photography: Michael Grady, Mark Knobil, Ryan Suffern, Jeffrey A. Unay
Editors: V. Scott Balcerek, J.R. Mitchell, Martin Singer
Composer: Paul Pilot

80 minutes