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?

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A Greater Society


This is what difference makers look like.

(2018) Documentary (Deranged Squirrel) Ruth G. Weber, Fred Genetti, Tamara Gussman Stine, Howard Finkelstein, Jack Mendelson, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Charlie Crist, Nan Rich, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Mitch Caesar, Bruce Bandler, Ronny Sydney, Minerva Nazario, Karen Hoffman, Jack Shifrel, Tony Fransetta, Jeff Johnson, Ted Deutch, Ashley Walker. Directed by Stacy Goldate and Craig A. Colton

Down in Broward County in South Florida, just north of Miami is Wynmoor, one of many retirement communities in the area. California developers opened the facility back in 1973, marketing it mainly to residents of New York City and the Northeast in general, wooing residents with sunshine, modern amenities and sea breezes. Their advertising campaign worked; more than 4,000 residents live there now, many of them of the Jewish faith.

The Jewish community in New York City tends to be progressive; many lived through the depression and the New Deal of FDR. All of them lived through the 60s and Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” which tried to address poverty, racism and rising medical costs. While the New Deal established Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and the Voter Rights Act came out of the Great Society. In fact, the title of the movie is a play on LBJ’s ambitious program.

When Wynmoor opened, Broward County was largely a Conservative bastion although at the time it was mostly Dixiecrats that made up the voter rolls. Since then, Southern conservatives have moved to the Republican party as the Democrats became champions of civil rights and other things that the Old South was less than fond of. The arrival of large numbers of progressive elderly from the Northeast swayed the county from red to blue.

This fascinating documentary, which premiered at the Florida Film Festival earlier this year and is now making its way onto the Vimeo streaming service, looks at the residents of Wynmoor during the 2014 midterm elections when Rick Scott was running for re-election as governor. It starts with the primaries when former Republican governor Charlie Crist was running against Nan Rich, leader of the Democratic party in the Florida House of Representatives and a grandmother herself, which appealed to many of the voters at Wynmoor who saw in her someone who understood the needs of their age group but also their desire to provide the services they rely on for their children and grandchildren in the years to come.

Much of the emphasis focuses on the Wynmoor Democrat Club which true to its name supports Democratic candidates and makes sure that residents of that party get out and vote. The stereotype of the elderly is that they tend to be conservative and suspicious of change; nothing could be further from the truth and it is refreshing to see the liberal activism that goes on in a group of people who could easily just take a dip in the pool, play some shuffleboard and in general just enjoy their golden years. It means something when someone who has earner their retirement nevertheless gets out and appeals for people to vote.

There is a Republican club as well, led by the knowledgeable Jack Mendelson who has a sunny sense of humor and a propensity towards driving his wife crazy. Despite being such an engaging subject, he gets a whole lot less screen time than his liberal counterparts who are, to be sure, equally fascinating, particularly Fred Genetti, a handsome man pushing 70 at the time of filming who only reluctantly gets active in the election but proves to be very good at it, and Ruth Weber, a 98-year-old woman born during the Woodrow Wilson administration who is still sharp as a tack and as passionate about politics as anyone a quarter her age. Conservative viewers may well find the disparity insulting, but the truth is that the Democrats appear to be much more active at Wynmoor than the Republicans.

In fact, Wynmoor is so important to the Democrats that often luminaries of that party stop by the complex to campaign, including Joe Biden, Debbie Wasserman Schultz (then-chairperson of the Democratic National Committee) and both candidates for the Democratic gubernatorial primary. The documentary labels the activist seniors as kingmakers and they aren’t far wrong.

The pace of the film is a little bit slow, but it seems to mirror the lifestyle of the residents and is perhaps a nod at the target audience. The filmmakers certainly display the power of organization and that coming together as a community matters. The filmmakers engage in a lot of talking head interviews but not as much as you might think. They use political cartoons to set up the political history nicely and the footage of the seniors going about their day is genuinely interesting.

This is a different kind of political documentary. Although it leans a bit left, it is by no means out there to extol one side over the other. Red or blue, there is a lesson in what these seniors accomplish and in their genuine love for their country and its future. Every vote matters and these citizens are well aware of that fact. Particularly in a midterm election year where so much is riding on the outcome, it seems a particularly timely film that anyone who thinks their vote doesn’t make a difference should check out.

REASONS TO GO: Weber and Genetti are both engaging personalities. The filmmakers turn stereotypes of the elderly on their ear. The filmmakers give time (although far from equal) to both sides of the aisle.
REASONS TO STAY: The pace may be a little bit slow for some
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Goldate and Colton primarily work in the editing bay for other projects; this is their first project as co-directors.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Final Year
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Bel Canto