At a time when racial tensions flared in NYC, a black musician bonded with a white musician over their love for music. Their names were Sterling Magee and Adam Gussow. Twenty years in the making, V. Scott Balcerek’s lyrical and relevant documentary Satan & Adam lovingly traces the men’s deep friendship from inception to where they ultimately end up. It may not achieve the subliminal heights of its counterparts Searching for Sugar Man or 20 Feet From Stardom, but Balcerek’s film is an eloquent statement on music – specifically blues – as a spiritual force with the power to unite disparate individuals and overcome the direst of hardships.
“Adam immediately pulled out his harmonica and joined the powerhouse, despite the furor it caused in the racially-charged times.”
A Princeton grad and aspiring blues musician, Adam saw local “historical landmark” Sterling, a.k.a. “One Man Satan Band,” playing on a Harlem street corner in 1986. Adam immediately pulled out his harmonica and joined the powerhouse, despite the furor it caused in the racially-charged times. “Satan’s gonna play with the white boys,” Adam recollects hearing whispers amongst the rapidly-growing crowd. Yet Adam resolutely pursued his dream. “Nobody’s gonna stop me from playing with him,” he stated. Their act was “an explosion” – and the beginning of a beautiful “apprenticeship”, with Sterling the maestro running the show.
When U2’s The Edge happened to stumble upon the duo, he became entranced. “It captured so much of our intention as a band,” he says of Satan & Adam’s performance. Soon, a 38-second snippet of Satan and Adam’s “Freedom for My People” made it to a U2 record, which led to a studio recording, Satan & Adam becoming “a New York act, not just a Harlem act” – and eventually playing to large crowds in New Orleans, known as “The Odd Couple.” Through captivating, elegantly assembled archival footage, Balcerek chronicles their meteoric rise to success, along with all the ups and downs – up until an unexpected, deeply moving development in its third act.
“…a universal language with the capacity to heal, transcend prejudice and emotional trauma.”
Sterling / Satan is charismatic, mysterious, “not constant in thought”, possessing a raw talent that’s rarely matched (he’s compared to the likes of Sun Ra). Adam is his polar opposite: somewhat nerdy and by-the-book. Their love for music, however, brings out palpable chemistry, especially evident when they’re playing in front of crowds of fervent fans, or during joyful recording sessions at the studio. Satan’s “unbalanced” wife Miss Maicy, always looming in the background, adds another layer of quirkiness to an already-striking relationship.
With the contributions from the disparate likes of Harry Shearer and Al Sharpton, Satan & Adam displays music as a universal language with the capacity to heal, transcend prejudice and emotional trauma. Whether you like blues or not, you’ll appreciate the musicianship on display here. Inspired and inspiring, Satan & Adam will make you thank the heavens for this legendary duo.
Satan & Adam (2019) Directed by V. Scott Balcerek. Written by V. Scott Balcerek and Ryan Suffern. Featuring Sterling Magee, Adam Gussow, The Edge, Harry Shearer, Al Sharpton, Rachel Faro.
8 out of 10