Satan And Adam


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Satan & Adam
"It's told from Adam's point of view, largely because he's younger and in better shape to tell a coherent story at the end of it all, but it's really Mr Satan's film."

Adam Gussow was at an all time low when he fist met Sterling Magee, then going by the name of Mr Satan, on the streets of Harlem. A white boy in the wrong part of town during the most racially tense part of the Eighties, just before Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing blew the lid off it all, he had the nerve to walk up to the neighbourhood's most famous street musician and ask if he could jam with him. The crowd's expectations were not high but Mr Satan said yes, and then Adam took out his harmonica and started to play.

Perhaps it was the fact that Adam's woman had just left him. That day, despite it all, he had the right to play the blues. Something gelled between the two performers and the crowd loved it. it was the beginning of a friendship that would come to mean more to them than any other and would see them, briefly, rise to the top of the billboard chats and enjoy international fame. Then, just as abruptly, Mr Satan vanished and Adam found himself lost all over again.

This documentary, comprised of footage recorded over a 20-year period, charts the history of that friendship and musical act whilst searching for Mr Satan - back to using his given name, as he had during his earlier recording career - and bringing the two together again with results that nobody could then have predicted. It's told from Adam's point of view, largely because he's younger and in better shape to tell a coherent story at the end of it all, but it's really Mr Satan's film. It's also about the deep love that formed between these two men from very different worlds: a true bromance.

Adam, who now works in academia with a focus on African American studies, is painfully aware that the whole thing could look like a white man's fantasy, a brush with greatness created by black men during which he never had anything like as much to lose, but this alertness itself contributes something to the story and to the larger perspective the film offers on US race relations. It provides proof that it's possible to tell such stories sensitively. Sterling gets plenty of space to share his thoughts and the respect he has for Adam, both as musician and as a man, is clear. We also learn about his relationship to the music, his thoughts on the nature of the blues and his connection to the Harlem community, including the homeless people he fed with money made from his street carer. He named himself because of his dislike of organised religion and when people had no-one else to turn to, Mr Satan was there.

There's also an element here of meditation on ageing, the losses it leads to and the way those losses affect not only individuals but also those who look up to them and rely on their strength. All of this finds voice through the blues. We watch Harlem age, Adam briefly reflecting on how it's headed for gentrification. V Scott Balcerek's documentary picks up on all the little details promoted as giving the once desperately poor neighbourhood character, including those since tidied away.

John Sayles once told me that he thinks it's music, more than anything, that has the power to bring Americans together across racial lines (he also theorised that that's why it has historically been so carefully controlled). Satan & Adam speaks to just such a power and goes beyond that to show us what it's worth.

Reviewed on: 08 Apr 2019
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Satan And Adam packshot
A documentary about two men with very different backgrounds united through music.

Director: Scott Balcerek

Starring: Sterling Magee, Adam Gussow

Year: 2018

Runtime: 77 minutes

Country: US


Glasgow 2019

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