(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?