It would be relatively easy to say that V. Scott Balcerek's fantastic documentary Satan and Adam reminds me of some other beloved docs like Searching for Sugar Man or, even more so, The Devil and Daniel Johnston.
But, to be honest, that would be the lazy way out for a film that may dance within the universe of those films yet stands alone as an absolute work of wonder. Set to screen at the 2018 Heartland International Film Festival as a finalist in competition, Satan and Adam blew me away from beginning to end with a story that seems like it's going to be one thing before becoming so much more than you'd ever imagined it could be.
Writer/director Scott Balcerek kicks it off in fine fashion, black-and-white imagery barely concealing the explosiveness of 1980's Harlem where the story picks up with Adam Gussow, a Jewish, Ivy League educated white dude with some pretty mean harmonica skills barely off the bus in New York in a post break-up state of mind when he immediately seems to zero in on the musical madness that was Sterling "Mr. Satan" Magee, an older black Mississippi bluesman who'd been a session player for the likes of Etta James and Marvin Gay along with playing on Ray Charles's famed Tangerine Records sessions in the 1960's. Burned out by the backstabbing of musical peers and business types alike, mostly white folks, Magee retreated to the safety and familiarity of Harlem's 125th Street while changing his name to Satan and being content to live out his life as a street musician and band all in one.
The result is nothing short of astounding to watch unfold, something we're practically able to do because Balcerek somehow managed to be present for pretty much the entire 30+ year journey and managed to keep Gussow, Magee and himself from ever derailing the most remarkable project.
You could be forgiven for watching the early scenes in the film and thinking you're in for some kind of cutesie racial unity story or, even worse, some sort of white savior crap.
Fortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.
Gussow, with his clean-cut good looks and Ivy League pedigree, seems like he'd be incredibly out of his element even stepping foot in Harlem let alone having the balls to walk up to a legendary Harlem street musician and asking him if he could jam.
Thankfully, Gussow wasn't out of his element, or if he was we can be thankful that he had the balls to go for it anyway.
Utilizing archival footage and interviews, Satan and Adam gives us an electrifying feeling that I'm pretty sure only begins to capture the spiritual connection that flowed between Gussow and Magee, their souls somehow intertwined as their lives constantly played out with the magnificent creation of their music.
For quite a while, Magee and Gussow were content to live out their musical aspirations on the streets of New York. Not surprisingly, however, eventually the word began to spread and opportunities began to surface from releasing an album to playing before thousands on the mainstage at New Orleans Jazz Fest.
The story in Satan and Adam goes places we never completely expect, though never for a single minute does the film hit an artificial or manipulative note. Instead, Balcerek manages beautifully the almost impossible task of bringing to life all the complexities of two disparate personalities as they live out their lives individually and as a collective act. It's nothing short of being an absolutely marvelous accomplishment.
Satan and Adam truly soars when the camera focuses on Magee, whose fiery, possessed musicianship at times seems almost dissociative from the more vulnerable times when he's left without his stage persona to "only" be Magee. He's amazing to watch and it's amazing to watch Gussow alongside him, different yet almost exactly the same in a myriad of ways.
Without spoiling where the story goes, and there's not a chance I'm headed that direction, Satan & Adam is a deserving finalist in the doc feature category of the 2018 Heartland Film Fest and it's absolutely destined to be an audience pleasing doc, as well. I haven't fallen completely in love with a doc in quite a while, but it would be completely impossible to not absolutely and passionately love everything about Satan & Adam. If Satan & Adam were only about these two compelling and charismatic figures, it would be worth the just shy of 90-minutes that you'll spend watching the film.
There's so much more.
Satan & Adam is a miraculous, exhilarating film about a 30+ year miraculous, exhilarating journey of music and friendship, heartbreak and stunning, tear-inducing transformation. Coming out at a time when the U.S. seems so incredibly divided, Satan & Adam reminds us of the power we all have to intertwine our differences into one freakishly amazing and unforgettable rhythm of life.
Satan & Adam will be screening at the following times:
- Oct. 12th at 5:45pm at DeBoest Lecture Hall at Newfields
- Oct. 13th @ 3:15pm at AMC Showplace Traders Point 12
- Oct. 19th @ 6:15pm at AMC Castleton Square 14
- Oct. 20th @ 12:45pm at AMC Showplace Traders Point 12
- Oct. 21st at 3:45pm at AMC Castleton Square 14
For ticket information, visit the Heartland Film Festival website.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic