“Satan and Adam” starts simply enough on the streets of Harlem in 1986, just down the street from the Apollo where a wicked blues guitarist named Satan regularly attracts a crowd. Adam Gussaw, an Upper West Sider, was barely off the train when the reverb caught his ear, seemingly an echo of the heartbreak he just suffered after he and his girlfriend ended their relationship and moved by the music, he summoned the courage to ask Satan if he could sit in, pulling out his harmonica to play alongside him. Bystanders no doubt took notice that Gussaw, a Caucasian, and Satan, an African-American, made for an odd couple in the heart of the majority black neighborhood, but for his part, Satan, being no fool, noticed that it also drew a larger audience, so it was the start of a beautiful musical marriage that spanned over two decades.
Remarkably, V. Scott Balcerek seems to have been there for almost all of it, which makes “Satan and Adam” unusually rich as it charts the duo’s relationship, at first as an observer and then as a facilitator once life pulls them apart. Featuring a naturally electric blues soundtrack, the film has considerable torque, but as much of it comes from how the story unfolds as much as its music, energetically following their rise from street legends to playing the main stage at New Orleans Jazz Fest in front of thousands. While seeing Satan and Adam together is just as intriguing at first sight now as it was for people who first saw them in Harlem, their individual stories prove more so as it shows Adam’s transformation from a Princeton lit grad who finds his calling playing for spare change and slowly pulls back the curtain on the enigmatic Satan, who once went by the name of Sterling McGee when he backed up the likes of James Brown and could blow away George Benson in a jam session.
“Satan and Adam” doesn’t shy away from the racial politics of the partnership, boasting interviews with Al Sharpton and Village Voice journalist Peter Noel to set the scene for the particular powder keg moment the two played in New York, with the latter noting of Adam, “Is this guy helping or stealing the music?” which could be interpreted as a foreshadowing of the gentrification to come in Harlem. For reasons that become obvious as the film wears on, Satan is less able to speak to his side of the story than Adam is, creating an imbalance of perspective that Balcerek has to work hard to overcome. But he largely does, in part because of a narrative turn that allows one to see them develop an identity on screen that isn’t in relation to each other after Satan and Adam take a break from playing together and the respect the filmmaker shows for time and personal evolution, freeing them of superficial identifiers such as skin color to be seen first as emotionally complex characters with the capacity for change. While many films pay lip service to that notion, “Satan and Adam” actually delivers the goods, and the result feels as stirring as actually being in the audience for a Satan and Adam show.
“Satan and Adam” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will next play at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 21st at 4:15 pm and April 25th at 5:15 pm at the Cinepolis Chelsea, and April 28th at 5:15 pm at the Regal Battery Park.