Film

Review: Music Doc Satan & Adam Explores an Unlikely Musical Partnership

In this feature debut from editor-turned-director V. Scott Balcerek, we follow the sometimes tentative, always moving friendship and musical partnership between elderly, black guitarist/singer Sterling Magee (known frequently as Mr. Satan) and much younger, white, Jewish Princeton graduate and harmonica player Adam Gussow, from their first meeting as street performers in Harlem in 1986 to their current friendship today.

Image courtesy Cargo Film & Releasing.

Although Magee was a successful back-up player for such legends as James Brown and Ray Charles, many music enthusiasts first caught sight of him almost by accident, alongside Gussow, in U2’s concert documentary and accompanying soundtrack, Rattle & Hum, when band members caught sight of them playing on the street (U2’s The Edge recalls the moment and Satan & Adam’s appeal in a new interview). After that exposure, the partners began getting booked to play clubs and music festivals, and eventually, they were even able to record some of their music, making them one of the most popular blues acts of the 1990s. Satan & Adam tracks them from Gussow’s hesitant first request to join Magee during a sidewalk performance and the racial implications of such a pairing at the time. Al Sharpton paints a nervous and bleak picture of that era in Harlem’s history, while Gussow recalls being challenged by black residents about what they considered cultural appropriation.

While the film’s story of racial boundaries and crossing those lines is a tremendous part of this story, as the years go on, Magee and Gussow abruptly stopped working together when Magee’s health began to take a turn and he left New York, leaving Gussow wondering where his friend went and what path he should take next. Covering 23 years of their 30-plus years together, director Balcerek (a blues guitarist as well) unlocks the mystery of Magee’s disappearance and the complicated journey Gussow took in deciding what to do next. The film reveals a heartwarming tale of discovering the importance of music, friendship and the transformative power of both

The film opens Friday for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Director V. Scott Balcerek is scheduled to appear for audience discussion on Saturday, May 4, after the 5pm screening.

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