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?

Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story


Student and sensei: Paul Butterfield and Muddy Waters.

(2017) Dramedy (Abramorama) Paul Butterfield, Nick Gravenites, Elvin Bishop, Peter Butterfield, Jac Holzman, Maria Muldaur, David Sanborn, Sam Lay, Lee Butterfield, Mark Naftalin, BB King, Paul Shaffer, Al Kooper, Jim Rooney, Marshall Chess, Gabriel Butterfield, Buzz Feiten, Jim Kweskin, Joe Boyd, Clydie King, Happy Traum, Bonnie Raitt, Kathy Butterfield, Barry Goldberg, Cindy Cashdollar. Directed by John Anderson

 

Not many modern music lovers – unless they cherish the blues and blues rock of the 70s – remember the name of Paul Butterfield and if they do, it’s only vaguely. Most have not heard his music. Butterfield was a Chicago bluesman who grew up in Hyde Park, a white enclave surrounded by African-American communities. There were dozens of blues clubs around him growing up and he got hooked on the sound early, trading in the flute that his classical music-loving father wanted him to play for the harmonica.

He would become one of the most influential musicians of his time. His band was integrated at a time when that was not common. He was a protégé of Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf, who both had the prescience to see that for the blues to grow it had to attract white audiences and in order to do that, white musicians. Butterfield was one of the best of those, even as the blues was taking hold in Britain and British musicians were enthusiastically promoting the American masters who inspired them.

The movie is pretty standard documentary filmmaking, stylistically speaking. There are plenty of interviews with friends, families and musicians although in this case, musicians who actually played with Butterfield and none who were inspired by him. There is a fairly notable lack of contemporary musical figures, although Raitt, Sanborn and Bishop are still active.

The performance footage from Butterfield’s early years and salad days is particularly of interest. He had a well-earned reputation as a blistering performer – bandmates routinely describe him as a “force of nature” and “as intense as it gets.” There’s no substitute for being physically present at a life show of course but the footage gives an idea of how dynamic a performer he truly was. There is also footage from later on his career including some from the last months of his life but they pale in comparison.

Some of the footage is from the ground-breaking Newport Jazz Festival of 1965 in which Bob Dylan famously went electric. Most people don’t know that it was Butterfield and his blues band – which at the time included Elvin Bishop and Howlin Wolf’s rhythm section of drummer Sam Lay and bassist Jerome Arnold – that backed up Dylan at the Festival. While it vastly offended purists who believed folk (and the blues, come to that) should be acoustic music, the genii was out of the bottle. They had influenced rock and roll and now rock was returning the favor.

Butterfield’s decline was as heartbreaking as it was inevitable. He had moved his family to Woodstock, New York (before the famous rock festival) and lived a simple country life with his second wife Kathy and son Lee (he had a son Gabriel from his first marriage) when he was home but that wasn’t often. Butterfield had never been what you would call a consumer of healthy food and years of hard drinking, drug abuse and stress had led to a painful digestive ailment called peritonitis. He essentially ignored it and continued to play and party hard, which led to Kathy and Gabriel leaving him. The disintegration of his family apparently weighed heavily on him. His career took a turn downward as the blues became less popular and as the 70s came to a close receded into the province of being a somewhat cult music rather than a popular one. While it remains vital today, it doesn’t capture the popular imagination as it did in Butterfield’s era.

He died far too young at age 44 of a heroin overdose. His legacy however remains, even if most people are unaware of it. I wish the filmmakers had taken the time to talk to those carrying on that legacy rather than those who were contemporaries; it might have urged more people unfamiliar with his music to give him a try. Those who might be interested should check out his self-titled first album and the second, East-West which also was one of the early shapers of jazz fusion.

At the end of the day, this is not really an essential documentary although I wish it could have been. Truly, this is going to remain a niche film, appealing mainly to fans of Butterfield and of the genre in general. It’s unlikely to convert many new fans which is a shame because the music speaks for itself. I myself am not a particular lover of the blues but I do respect the blues and those who play it well. Butterfield was one of the very best and his music ignites and inspires just as intensely now as it did when he was still alive.

The film is scheduled to play Orlando on November 14 at the Gallery on Avalon Island. For those not willing to wait that long or want to make additional showings, it will also be playing at the Cine-World Film Festival in Sarasota on November 2, 6 and 11 – all at the Burns Court Cinema, one of the two venues for the Festival. Tickets for the Festival can be purchased online here. Click on the same link for further information about the Festival which has an impressive line-up this year.

REASONS TO GO: The performance footage is mind-blowing. Fans of Butterfield and of the blues genre in general will love this.
REASONS TO STAY: This is essentially a niche film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Butterfield is a member of both the blues and rock and roll Halls of Fame.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Howlin Wolf Story – The Secret History of Rock and Roll
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness begins!

Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg


Two giants of stand-up comedy reunited.

(2016) Documentary/Comedy (Weinstein) Robert Klein, Fred Willard, Mike Binder, Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, David Steinberg, Budd Friedman, Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Lewis, Larry Miller, Sheila Levine, Myrna Jacobson, Billy Crystal, Rick Overton, Lucie Arnaz, James Burrows, Allie Klein, Robert Mankoff, Jay Leno, Eric Bogosian, Michael Fuchs, Ray Romano, Bob Stein, Melanie Roy Friedman  Directed by Marshall Fine

 

When I was in high school (and I realize this dates me tremendously) there were three names that dominated stand-up comedy; George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Robert Klein. The first two became legends, cultural icons. The third became more of an influence on other stand-ups than he did a household name, although anyone who has seen any of his numerous HBO stand-up specials will attest to the man’s genius in the field.

Film critic and historian Marshall Fine has put together this loving tribute to Klein who quite frankly deserves to be feted. The documentary is very loosely structured with a number of chapters looking at aspects of Klein’s career and comedy. This does have the effect of leaping around chronologically which is fine but it also feels at times like there is no flow to what’s going on, which may well be an appropriate measure. He talks about his history somewhat; growing up in the Bronx (as in most retrospectives Klein visits his childhood home on Decatur Avenue), his time honing his craft in both Second City and at the Improv in Los Angeles, spending time being mentored by Rodney Dangerfield, his marriage to opera singer Belinda  Boozer and so on and so forth.

He also talks about why Jews seem to dominate the stand-up market, the use of profanity in his act and adjusting to the times. He imparts some of his experience to students at Binghamton University and endures squealing little girls who see the camera and exult in being in a movie – without having a clue of who Klein is (some of him recognize him from How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days).

Fine obviously feels a great affection for his subject and we don’t get a sense that Klein is anything but a nice guy. His divorce is given little coverage and although it appears that there was some acrimony between them, the causes and effects of the split on the couple are given little play. Boozer is conspicuously not interviewed for the film.

Of course, I’m a warts and all kind of guy and I want to get to know the man behind the laughs but that isn’t what this film is after and if you’re okay with that, you’ll be okay with this. There are a lot of wonderful clips here, including some of Klein’s signature songs like “The Colonoscopy Song” and “I Can’t Stop My Leg” from which the title of the documentary is taken. This is a pleasant diversion, a career retrospective for a performer who is as sharp at 75 as he was at 25 and continues to make us laugh today. There are fewer summations of a career that could possibly be better than that.

REASONS TO GO: The film makes a good case for Klein’s place in comedy history.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is a bit of a mishmash.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Klein was nominated for a Tony award for his role in the musical They’re Playing Our Song.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Starz
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: From War to Wisdom