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Good biographies offer insightful profiles of extraordinary individuals, but great biographies use those individuals' life stories as a lens through which to examine the eras that molded them as men and women.
“Satan & Adam” is a great biography, made all the more rich by the treasure trove of video footage chronicling the developing partnership of veteran blues musician Sterling “Mr. Satan” Magee and his decades-younger apprentice, Princeton-educated harmonica player Adam Gussow, as it was happening.
It was Gussow’s aimless wanderings into Harlem, after having his heart broken by his girlfriend breaking up with him, that led him to stumble across the local street musician whom everyone knew as “Satan.”
Gussow’s impulsive decision, to ask the man who billed himself as “The One-Man Band” if he could accompany him on harmonica, would go on to transform both of their lives.
Magee and Gussow’s musical partnership was forged during the mid- to late 1980s, when racial tensions ran high in New York City, and this film explores how a naturally talented, relatively affluent young man, with two college degrees at the time, evolved his perspective beyond the white privilege of his upbringing, enough that Harlem street crowds no longer looked askance at him for playing alongside an older black man.
We see Adam doing his homework on his newfound musical mentor, and learning how he once cut records on Ray Charles' label, and provided guitar accompaniment to a constellation of rhythm-and-blues stars that included Marvin Gaye and Etta James.
Sterling Magee explains to the camera that he adopted the stage name of “Satan,” not only as an act of rebellion against the gospel music that was forced upon him by his blues-hating mother, who deemed the blues the devil's music, but also as a response to the death, due to cancer, of a woman he loved in his youth.
Although Magee acknowledges the antagonism of Satan toward God, both he and his peers agreed that he saw his “Satan” persona as much more philosophical, contemplative and even spiritual in its own way, comparable to the “Sun Ra” identity adopted by jazz musician Herman “Sonny” Blount, who also appears in this film, through archival footage.
The trajectory of Satan & Adam's musical career is astonishing. They first teamed up to play together on the street in the fall of 1986, and in the summer of 1987, they were discovered by members of the band U2, who happened to be touring the streets of Harlem, with a documentary film crew of their own in tow.
From there, Magee's original song, “Freedom For My People,” was released on U2's “Rattle and Hum” album, Satan & Adam opened for Buddy Guy during a Summerstage concert in Central Park in 1990, the duo recorded a studio album of their own, and they got picked up to tour the United Kingdom with Bo Diddley in 1991.
From then until 1998, Satan & Adam performed across the country and around the world, but Gussow, who'd adopted Magee as something of a surrogate father figure, found himself suddenly forced into the role of the band's manager, while Magee, who already had a tempestuous relationship with his wife, struggled to cope with the pressures of life on the road.
One of the tragic ironies of Magee's arc is that a man who was able to make a living for years by performing on the street was ultimately unable to handle being thrust into the role of a celebrity.
While Gussow was able to find growth and far broader horizons than would have been available to him, if Magee had never granted his permission to play beside him, we see how devastated this once-young man was, when he was initially reunited with his former mentor, after Magee had fallen into a state of debilitation that was a far cry from when Adam considered him an “all-powerful” talent.
Fortunately, Magee eventually found a new circle of supporters, who were able to build him back up, and Gussow, who had already learned so much from the man he'd once considered like a father to him, allowed himself to accept Magee's final lesson.
As Frank Herbert wrote in his 1965 novel “Dune,” “There is probably no more terrible instance of enlightenment than the one in which you discover your father is a man — with human flesh.”
The happy ending of “Satan & Adam,” as a documentary, is that Adam's acceptance of this truth allowed him to rejoin Magee, not as “Mr. Satan's Apprentice,” as per the title of his 1998 memoir, but as his equal partner, so that Satan & Adam could take to the stage again.