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?

Marching Forward


The Jones High Marching Tigers at the 1964 World’s Fair.

(2019) Documentary (University of Central Florida) James “Chief” Wilson, Del Kieffner, Carl Maultsby, Kay Kieffner Kimbrough, Jamaal Nicholas, Richard Fogelsong, Jamia Wilson, Joy Dickinson, Barbara Young, Nina Wilson Jones, Ben Brolemarkle, Virginia Wilson, Noel Wooley Weller, Karen Jones, Anthony Foster, Lyman Brodie, Barbara Kaye Burns, Lynn Kieffner Lockhart. Directed by Oswmer Louis, Lisa Mills and Robert Cassanello

High school is the time when the people we are as adults is influenced perhaps more than at any other time of our lives. The people who guide us (teachers, counselors, parents) are slowly displaced by our peers. The friendships we form in high school can be indelible, lasting the length of our lives even if we no longer have physical proximity.

Here in Orlando back in 1964, schools were segregated. Jones High School was one of the only high schools African-American students could attend. While race relations in Orlando were relatively mild, there was still plenty of things that needed to change – for example, members of the band recall demanding a nearby hamburger stand allow them to pay at the front window to get their burgers. Those demands resulted in a police action at band practice later that day.

Edgewater High School, by contrast, was lily white and fairly upper class. The students there were expected to become leaders of the community as well as of the state of Florida eventually. They had the best facilities available, the most modern amenities. Jones was lucky if they had enough books for everybody. The high school experience for students at these two Orlando high schools was night and day.

But both had one thing in common; marching bands that were among the best in the state. James “Chief” Wilson was the band leader at the time (and would continue to do so until he retired in the 1980s) at Jones and one of his closest friends was Del Kieffner, band leader at Edgewater. Both men took their jobs seriously of molding young people into a cohesive unit. Both men influenced their students who these days are of retirement age themselves, even now more than 50 years later. Both men are regarded fondly not only by the students who played in their bands but are revered by the institutions they served for so long and so well.

In 1964 the big news was the massive World’s Fair coming to New York City’s Flushing Meadow for a two-year run. On display would be the latest in manufacturing, tourism and amusements; the world was coming to New York and at the Florida pavilion it was determined that marching bands from high schools from around the state would be invited to play at the pavilion. The two best bands in the city were Edgewater and Jones; there was no doubt that Edgewater was going to go.

However, Jones didn’t have the kind of budget to send their kids to New York. Everything would have to be done through donations and through fund raisers. Many thought Jones was the best marching band in the State – they’d won several competitions to back their case. Many felt that Jones had to go. Among those was Del Kieffner. This set the stage for history.

According to his daughters, Kieffner was never really concerned about the history-making aspect of the Edgewater-Jones relationship; he only knew it was the right thing to do. Wilson however, also according to his daughters, was savvier about what it meant. It would illustrate that Orlando was a much more tolerant place than other like places in the South. It is not beyond the realm of chance that this attracted the attention of Walt Disney, who was even then scouting locations for an East Coast Disneyland at the time. Disney had a huge presence at the Fair with many what would become iconic attractions being tested there, including It’s a Small World, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and the Carousel of Progress. While there isn’t any documentation to corroborate this, it had to register that African-American tourists would be more welcome in Orlando than they would be in other cities.

The documentary is clearly a labor of love. It clearly shows the lifelong bonds of affection generated by being in band, as well as the influence the band leaders had on those kids – many of whom went on to become educators themselves. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of footage that exists of the band from that period other than some 16mm home movie footage so much of the film is made up of interviews with the people who were there and their descendants. Even though the film is a compact 61 minutes, the non-stop interviews can make it seem like a segment of 60 Minutes.

This is also a student project so many student hands can be felt during the making of this film, but surprisingly, it doesn’t feel like a student film at all. Many student documentaries tend to feel like the viewer is being led by the nose to a specific conclusion; this one allows the viewer to feel the sweep of history without feeling manipulated. Kudos have to go to the faculty members who guided the project and allowed the students to do their thing, but also keep the movie entertaining and informative.

There are some brief animated segments with fairly basic techniques but the animations do make a nice break from the interviews which the movie really needs. I do have to stress that in reading this review, you should be aware I saw it at a Florida Film Festival screening that was packed to the gills mainly with Jones and Edgewater students who were involved in the World’s Fair trip, or who had played in bands led by Wilson and Kieffner. It was a fairly enthusiastic environment and no doubt enhanced my enjoyment of the film. Most readers will be unlikely to be able to recreate that experience.

Still, this is a well-made documentary about a moment that has been largely overlooked by history. In a turbulent era, it showed that there could be mutual respect and even friendship between black and white. A lot of myths were punctured. The film makes it easy to take a look back and feel part of that era without becoming strident. That’s a massive plus in and of itself.

Currently the filmmakers are looking to place the movie in film festivals and hosted screenings. If you are interested in hosting a screening or are a programmer in a film festival interested in booking the film, go to the film’s webpage by clicking on the photo above and contact the filmmakers directly.

REASONS TO SEE: The bond formed within marching bands is clearly illustrated. Chief Wilson is an unsung hero. The animation, while basic, is effective.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit heavy on the talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes regarding racism and segregation.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film began as a class project at the University of Central Florida; after class ended, the two faculty members (Mills and Cassanello) as well as several students worked to complete the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/23/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marching Orders
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Satan and Adam

3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets


How many more lives must be lost before we learn to live with one another?

How many more lives must be lost before we learn to live with one another?

(2015) Documentary (Participant) Ron Davis, Leland Brunson, Tommie Stornes, Tevin Thompson, Lucia McBath, John Guy, Cory Strolla, Vic Micolucci, Angela B. Corey, Russell Healey, Alia Harris. Directed by Marc Silver

Florida Film Festival 2015

The United States has never really been able to have peace between different racial groups, particularly the white European segment and the African-American segment. In places like Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore and New York City, there have been massive protests about the murders of young unarmed African-American men by white European-American men, mainly police officers.

In Jacksonville, Florida on November 23, 2012 – ironically, Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving – four young African-American boys pulled into a gas station to pick up some sundries at the convenience store on the premises. They’d just come from the local mall where Jordan Davis’ girlfriend worked and had plans to enjoy the rest of the holiday weekend. Like young men of any color often do, they had the music on way too loud. The driver, Tommie Stornes, went inside to make his purchases.

Into the spot next to them pulled in Michael D. Dunn and his girlfriend Rhonda Rouer. They had just come from his son’s wedding and had enjoyed several cocktails; they were looking forward to continuing the party in their hotel room before driving home to Brevard County. While Rouer went inside to buy wine and chips, Dunn asked the boys to turn the music down.

Initially Tevin Thompson complied but this apparently upset Davis who turned the music back on, exclaiming that he didn’t want anyone telling him what to do. This led to a verbal confrontation between Davis and Dunn. According to Dunn, Davis threatened to kill him and when Dunn saw the boy pull a shotgun out and point it at him, he pulled his own gun from the glove compartment and fired into the vehicle. Stornes, who had returned to the vehicle by this time, pulled out of the parking space and Dunn left the vehicle, continuing to fire – ten shots in all. Rouer returned to the parking lot shortly after, and Dunn calmly left, returned to his hotel room and ordered pizza.

Three of the shots had hit Davis however, and when Stornes stopped the car a short distance away, they noticed Davis gasping for air. He’d been struck in the leg, the lungs and in the aorta. They made a frantic 911 call but it was too late. Davis would die from his injuries. Dunn never called the police, never took any responsibility for his actions. He was arrested later because an eyewitness got the license plate number from his car. Police searched the boys’ vehicle and no weapon of any kind was found.

This powerful documentary doesn’t really concentrate much on the actual shooting, although there is a poignant sequence in which the last moments of Davis’ life are described while home video footage of him as a baby is displayed on the screen. Mostly, this is about the aftermath – the devastation on his parents, Ron Davis and Lucia McBath (they had separated when Jordan was young and his mom had since remarried), his friends and his girlfriend.

They cover the trial, following the awful ordeal of reliving the death of their son, the demonizing of the four boys that the defense used to try and apply Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law. The movie is an indictment of that law as well as the mentality surrounding it. A mentality that has led to open season on young black men, that has led to massive racial tensions in a country that is supposed to be far too enlightened for them.

It’s hard to watch this movie and not feel angry. The pain and suffering of Jordan Davis’ parents and friends is palpable. The arrogance and self-delusion of Dunn is chilling. And even as his parents were dealing with the trial of their son’s murderer, off-camera other African-American boys were getting shot down. Given the circumstances that America has found itself in over the past year and a half, it’s hard not to put this film in that context.

However, that context has to be done by the viewer; the filmmakers make little note of them, although surely they had to be aware of what was happening elsewhere. While the movie overall is incredibly moving and emotionally wrenching, one thing was missing: Jordan Davis. We never really got a sense of who this 17-year-old young man was, or what his plans for the future were other than they probably didn’t include the NBA (his friends joke regularly about what a lousy basketball player he was). At the Q&A following the Florida Film Festival screening of the film (one of the best I’ve ever attended, by the way), his father described him as hoping to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps after he graduated. He wanted to serve his country. Sadly, he never got the chance. In any case, I would have liked to have seen more of Jordan in his own story. He was more than just his murder and I think the movie would have been even more effective had we gotten to know him a little bit better.

This is the kind of tragedy that is far too common in our society. It is a senseless waste of human life. These four boys weren’t ghetto kids; they were from middle class families and had never been in trouble with the law. Even if they had been from a poor neighborhood, that still didn’t warrant what happened to them. Davis might have lost his temper and said some intemperate things, but that wasn’t worthy of a death sentence.

I don’t know that Dunn would have reacted differently had not the Stand Your Ground law been in effect. I think it’s impossible to know whether he would have or not. Chances are, the law wasn’t on his mind when he drew his weapon. What  was on his mind was anger and fear. Anger that these boys stood up to him; perhaps fear that they were guilty of being young and black. Which in his mind, did carry a death sentence.

REASONS TO GO: Absolutely riveting.  Couldn’t be more timely. Nonpartisan.
REASONS TO STAY: Could have explored the underlying issues more thoroughly. Would have liked to have known more about the victim.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes. Some disturbing content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Made its debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It was initially titled 3 1/2 Minutes but has since added the 10 Bullets to the title.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound