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?

Bill Coors: The Will to Live


Bill Coors, Still a silver bullet as a centenarian.

(2017) Documentary (Indie Rights) Bill Coors, Amit Sood, Kieran Goodwin, Quran Squire, Scott Coors, Margo Hamilton, Dr. Scott Shannon, Amie Lee, Graceanne Parks, Tracy Atkins, May Coors, Leon Kelly, Thomas Pauling, John Ortiz, Peter Coors, Rosa Bunn, Herbert Benson, Max Morton, Karl Cordova, Patty Layman, Candice Jones, Brooke Stocks, Elizabeth Archer. Directed by Kerry David

 

Especially these days when it seems like there’s a very real class war going on in this country, we have a tendency to forget that the people in the 1% are just as human as we are. Some of them – a lot of them – are certainly driven by greed and an attempt to not only keep what they have but improve upon it, there are those who have had their share of suffering which has made them very different from those privileged few who cannot have any empathy for those in lesser economic brackets.

The grandfather of William Coors was Adolph Coors who founded the Coors Brewing Company in Golden, Colorado back in 1873. Bill’s dad, Adolph Jr. would inherit the plant from his father who committed suicide in 1929. Bill characterized his father as a stern and exacting disciplinarian who rarely displayed affection to anyone. As a result, Bill had a difficult time showing affection which would later end his first marriage.

Bill was always a success in business; under his stewardship Coors went from being a regional brewery to a national and even global presence; it is the second largest beer company in the United States and the fifth largest in the world. Having come from money, one would think he led a charmed life.

One would be wrong. Depression runs strongly in the Coors family and there were cracks in the facade; his grandfather, the founder of the company, committed suicide in 1929; his daughter did the same in 1983. His older brother Adolph III was murdered in 1960 during a botched kidnapping and his first wife Geraldine died of the effects of alcoholism shortly after they divorced.

Bill also suffered from depression all of his life but it became much more obvious following the death of his brother. He did an enormous amount of research in trying to find a way to overcome his mental health issue. The movie is largely based around an address he gave graduating students of the American Academy of Achievement in 1981; although no video exists of his speech, there is audio of it and it is played throughout the film. In it Bill details some of the critical aspects of overcoming depression and what he calls his eleventh commandment – “Honor Thyself.” He had felt that repeating business platitudes would be of less use and instead delivered an impassioned and highly personal address instead.

That may sound like the dictates of a privileged and entitled generation but in reality it’s a remarkably accurate distillation of what mental health professionals often advise their patients. Bill learned and passed on that in order to love others he must first learn to love himself, something that his unaffectionate father never gave him the tools to do.

Young people, many of them YouTube vloggers, as well as family members, employees, and those close to Bill also chime in with either their own depression stories (musician Amie Lee implores people to communicate when they feel something is wrong) or how Bill has improved their lives.

The main problem here is that the whole thing kind of feels like an infomercial with nothing to sell except Bill’s philosophy of life perhaps. For those who have seen self-help infomercials late at night on cable, this will seem a bit uncomfortably familiar from the music to the way the film is laid out. That does some disservice to the subject who one gets the sense is genuine in his concern for others who like himself suffer from depression.

This is kinda Bill Coors’ story and kinda not. I suspect it was more important to get his message out than to tell his story although he does so mainly to emphasize that it’s possible to beat depression. If you chose to see this documentary, it is unlikely what you expected to see. That in and of itself isn’t a bad thing but it can certainly affect how receptive you are to the message. I think the film would have been better served to take Bill’s name out of the title but perhaps the filmmakers were hoping the Coors name would give potential audiences the impression that this is a film about beer – and who doesn’t want to see a film about beer?

The movie is currently paying in New York City with engagements in Los Angeles, Denver and Seattle in upcoming weeks. It will also be available on VOD starting on November 1st. Check your favorite home video providers for availability.

REASONS TO GO: Coors has a very compelling and occasionally heartbreaking story and his message is a worthy one.
REASONS TO STAY: Plays more than a little bit like an infomercial.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Coors turned 102 years old shortly before the film was released
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Good Fortune: The John Paul DeJoria Story
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Pick of the Litter