Satan & Adam


The ultimate odd couple.

(2018) Music Documentary (Cargo) Sterling “Mr. Satan” Magee, Adam Gussow, Harry Shearer, The Edge, Al Sharpton, Kevin Moore, Phil Joanou, Bobby Robinson, Joan Gussow, Frank Migliorelli, TC Carr, Quentin Davis, Miss Maicy, Jeremy Jemott, Peter Noel, Margo Lewis, Rachel Faro. Directed by V. Scott Balcerek

 

The blues can be a beautiful thing. I think (and many agree) that no music touches every aspect of the human spirit the way the blues does. The blues can be sad yes but it can be cathartic, make you feel good when you feel down, bind us together (who hasn’t had the blues at one time or another?) and give us guidance. The blues is wisdom, man.

Adam Gussow had the blues one afternoon in 1986. He had just broken up with his girlfriend and the Princeton grad (and Columbia grad student) was walking around, finding himself in Harlem near the Apollo theater. I imagine if he’d been thinking about it clearly, he might not have ambled into that part of town so easily; New York City in 1986 was rife with racial tensions and people as lily white as Gussow were regarded with suspicion and sometimes outright hostility there.

About a block north of the legendary Apollo Theater he heard music and saw a crowd gathering. Being a harmonica player himself, he was curious and listened to the man identifying himself as Mr. Satan’s One-Man Band. The man who called himself Mr. Satan played hi-hat and tambourine using pedals and played the kind of guitar that rubs the soul raw. Totally in the right space for this Mississippi Delta blues, the white Gussow asked Mr. Satan if he could sit in on a couple of tunes. The older African-American man said sure. And lo and behold, the white boy could play. Afterwards, the young Ivy League grad asked if he could come back. Satan said sure. So Adam came back. And soon he was a regular partner. Mr. Satan noticed that the crowds were bigger when Adam played; it was a novelty that a white man could play the blues like that. While there was some grumbling that Adam was just another white man out to appropriate the music of black musicians, the partnership between Satan and Adam continued to grow and blossom.

The story of this duo is not your usual music industry tale. The duo would go on to record an album for the prestigious Flying Fish label, tour Europe and play such events as the New Orleans Heritage Jazz Festival. They were on the cusp of being a big act in the blues market…and then Mr. Satan just disappeared.

The movie takes place over a 20-year span. Balcerek first ran into the pair playing on the streets of New York City and became absolutely entranced with their story. He’s been filming them off and on over that time, sometimes in black and white (particularly the early years) but also in color. He buttresses the performance footage with interviews not only with the musicians themselves but by those in their orbit; friends, fellow musicians, celebrities. I was surprised to learn that the two were spotted by director Phil Joanou when he was filming the U2 concert documentary Rattle and Hum and U2’s guitarist The Edge was so taken with them that he put a snippet of their performance of the song “Freedom for My People” on the soundtrack.

I don’t want to spoil too much about their story; I’m deliberately leaving a lot of things out which will have greater impact if you experience them without any foreknowledge. The tone is pretty low-key and even some of the emotional highlights don’t hit you like a sucker punch but still there is a melancholic tone that reflects the music nicely.

And that music! Mr. Satan, whose birth name was Sterling Magee, is one of those raw, natural talents who come along every so often and simply rewrite the book. Think of him as up there with Sun Ra (jazz), George Clinton (funk) and Jimi Hendrix (rock). Yeah, he’s that good. Gussow compliments his sound nicely, not quite in the same league as a musician but wise enough to know that his main job is to support Mr. Satan.

Needless to say, a guy who calls himself Mr. Satan is kind of an interesting cat and you’ll be captivated by him. Magee can be charming although he has a temperamental streak as well and Adam learned when to tread carefully around him when he was in a bad mood. But once onstage, Magee was as joyful a human being as there ever was – it radiates from his face and from his smile. He reminds us that while the blues may be rooted in a particular set of emotions, there is joy in playing the blues at the absolute best of your abilities.

The story is unusual enough to make this a different kind of music documentary. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel but even those who aren’t blues fans will be captivated – and who knows, it might win over a few converts. While as a documentary this isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel, it is compact enough that it doesn’t require an exorbitant investment of time nor does it overstay its welcome. At the same time, you get to hear some raw street blues, some of the best you’ll ever hear. That alone has got to be worth the price of admission.

REASONS TO SEE: The story is a fascinating one. The music is incendiary.
REASONS TO AVOID: There’s a little bit of a lull in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: The is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Magee played in the bands of James Brown, Etta James and Marvin Gaye (among others) and had a solo career on Ray Charles’ label before walking out on the music industry in disgust.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Searching for Sugar Man
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Hail, Satan?

Black Snake Moan


Black Snake Moan

"Pappy" Jackson will make you watch this movie by any means necessary.

(2006) Drama (Paramount Vantage) Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake, S. Epatha Merkerson, John Cothran Jr., David Banner, Michael Raymond-James, Adriane Lenox, Kim Richards, Neimus K. Williams, Leonard L. Thomas, Ruby Wilson, Claude Phillips.  Directed by Craig Brewer

Black Snake Moan opens with blues legend Son House explaining as best he can what the blues means. It really is an impossible task; the blues can’t really be explained. The blues are felt and experienced at a deep level that is half-primitive. It is the pain that makes us feel alive, and the joy that reminds us of all our despair. Now that you’ve come to the dawning realization that I’m not going to explain the blues any better than Son House – not that I had a shot of doing that to begin with – let me just state for the record that this is a blues movie. Not in the sense of a movie with blues music on the soundtrack; there have been plenty of those. No, this is a movie that makes you feel the blues as you watch it and in watching it, you may even feel as if you’ve gained an understanding of the blues that was lacking before. Don’t kid yourself; however, it is true that the filmmakers get the blues as well as Hollywood filmmakers are going to.

Set in the South, young Rae (Ricci) is a beautiful young girl who is saying goodbye to her boyfriend Ronnie (Timberlake) who is being deployed by the National Guard. Rae is terrified that without Ronnie, she will sink back into the nasty habits that she had before she hooked up with him. You see, Rae has a very bizarre form of nymphomania that comes on her like a physical disease, forcing her to get relief any way she can.

Lazarus (Jackson) is hurting big time. His wife (Lenox) has left him for his own brother (Thomas) and the two are leaving town, leaving Lazarus – a grizzled old bluesman – humiliated and angry. After confronting the two who have wronged him, he goes home to rid it of every trace of his ex-wife, including her rose garden which he plows under with a certain amount of satisfaction.

Rae gives in to temptation and goes out with her friends. She takes to drinking heavily and popping pills. Nothing seems to help the terrible cough she’s developed; a little physical release is what she really craves. After a night of wild partying with the town pimp/drug dealer (Banner) and what looks like the local high school football team, she is too sick to party on any further, she’s been deserted by her friends and she is out of her mind with drugs, booze and God knows what else. Her boyfriend’s buddy Gill (Raymond-James) offers to drive her home, but when he tries to take advantage, she makes a cutting remark and he beats the holy crap out of her, then panics and dumps her at the side of the road and leaves her there, bleeding and half-naked.

The next morning, Lazarus finds the nearly dead girl and brings her into his home. Concerned for her life, he figures out quickly that it isn’t the beating that is the immediate concern; it’s the fever that is more likely to kill her. He goes down to the pharmacy where a helpful pharmacist (Merkerson) supplies him with what he needs. Slowly, through her fever dreams (which are nightmarish), he slowly nurses her back to her senses. He gets tired of chasing after her, however and finally comes up with the idea of chaining her to his radiator.

He is curious as to the identity of his houseguest and since the only clue she’s given him is the name of the pimp that she mumbled while insensible with her fever, Lazarus seeks him out and questions him about the girl. When he finds out about her nymphomania, an idea takes hold of him. This girl Rae has been put in his path for a reason, and he means to cure her of her wickedness, whether she wants to be or not.

There is a great deal of sexuality in the movie. Ricci has the thankless role of playing a woman driven to doing what most of us would consider disgusting things in order to get relief. There are times when her sexuality is graphic, and that may offend some. For my money, this is her best performance in years; she makes Rae trashy and vulnerable and sexy and terribly wounded, but still capable of love despite all the pain life has dealt her. Still, as much sex as goes on in this movie, it is not a movie about sex. It is a movie about love, and not the kind of love you’re thinking of either. Rae and Lazarus develop a kind of love that is not physical, but almost spiritual; they are friends yes, but more than that. They have been through Hell together and the bond they share is as unbreakable as the 40 pound chain Rae is imprisoned by.

Director Brewer does a flawless job of making the blues a living, pulsing part of the film. During a scene where Lazarus plays at a local bar, I was vividly reminded of hot summer nights in stifling little dive bars when great bands were playing to a packed house of sweaty people. If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, this is frankly not a movie you’re going to need to see. Brewer, whose previous effort was the much underrated Hustle and Flow has a real feel for the South and its music, and is putting together a terribly impressive resume. He’s currently directing the remake of Footloose and one can only hope he’ll find the big success that has eluded him so far. 

This is a great role for Jackson, who gets to take his on-screen persona and stretch it as far as it will go. In some ways, while I enjoy Jackson in nearly everything he does, I’ve gotten the sense that he doesn’t do much beyond recycling his on-screen persona from time to time. This really is his best performance since A Time to Kill. His Lazarus is quirky and well-intentioned, but in the end he has demons of his own that are driving him and he realizes that it is himself that he is trying to fix really, not so much the girl who cannot be fixed by him or anyone else. You would think the movie would end with that realization but it doesn’t – and quite frankly, I’m glad. When the movie ends, nobody is fixed. No problems are really solved. There’s just the potential for things getting better somewhere down the road. That’s the way life works in reality.

I have to mention too that Justin Timberlake does a pretty decent job in a supporting role. The one time boy band poster boy has developed into a solid actor the way former pop star Mark Wahlberg also did. This was really the first time I’d taken notice of his acting skills which he has since refined and shown to be considerable.

There is a pulp fiction feel to this, and I think that’s intentional. The lurid graphics and steamy plot would make it right at home in some of the pulps of the ’40s and ’50s (although the graphic sex and drug use depicted here would be a bit much for those eras) and even Ricci’s look in the film is a bit of Daisy Duke meets femme fatale. There is also unexpected humor at various times during the flick, keeping you a bit off-balance but in a good way.

Critical reaction has been uniformly strong, but the box office wasn’t impressive.  Even so, this is a movie definitely worth checking out, but it isn’t a movie for those with delicate sensibilities and how many of those are reading this anyway?

WHY RENT THIS: Scintillating performances by Ricci and Jackson. The feeling of being in a crowded bar on a hot summer night listening to great music.  Realistic plot line that doesn’t solve everything in a neat little package.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Graphic sexuality and drug use may be offensive to some. Definitely a Deep South feel to it.

FAMILY MATTERS: Did I mention there was a lot of sex and drug use? There’s also some violence and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Jackson learned to play guitar for this film while he was completing post-production on Snakes on a Plane.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s a featurette showing how the music for the film was chosen, and delves a little bit into the culture of the blues.

 BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.9M on a $15M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Mirrors