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Interview with SATAN & ADAM director V. Scott Balcerek

May 21, 2019

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Apparently I’ve known of Satan and Adam for 31 years and I didn’t even know it. I first heard the blues duo while listening to “Rattle and Hum”, the U2 album that served as a companion album to their 1988 rockumentary of the same name. It turns out they were the blues duo playing “Freedom for My People”, an infectious, soulful romp that seamlessly followed the live gospel version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, which is where they could be seen in the film as Bono and The Edge stumble upon them playing on the streets of Harlem. I can’t believe I never paid attention to who they were. If I was the U2 fan I’ve always considered myself to be, I would’ve known that Sterling “Mister Satan” Magee and Adam Gussow were known as Satan and Adam, a fixture on the streets of Harlem in the late 80s/early 90s. It wasn’t until I saw the trailer to V. Scott Balcerek’s documentary, “Satan & Adam”, that I finally put a name to a sound.

As soon as I heard “Freedom for My People” in the trailer and saw the recognizable “Rattle and Hum” clip, I felt illuminated and immediately curious. I had no clue that I would eventually watch a fascinating story unfold, one in which a passion for music brings two totally different people together, where acceptance and uncanny synchronicity makes a lasting impact on two musicians and whomever hears them.

“Satan & Adam” is a fascinating documentary that’s as infectious as its subjects, pulling in viewers close and weaving a story with surprisingly unexpected turns. If it wasn’t based on the real life events of Magee and Gussow, it would be the kind of standout story that a screenwriter would hope to deliver.

What’s just as fascinating is how the film was made. Rarely do you ever see a project that took 23 years of filming, editing, producing and getting funding, finally see the light of day. That’s exactly what happened here though and how it all came together, on-and-off throughout the years, is a pretty incredible story.

Earlier this month, I was able to sit down with Balcerek when he was in town to promote “Satan & Adam”, where it was playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center. We hit it off effortlessly, mainly because Balcerek exuded such an inviting and accepting aura about him as soon as we shook hands on that Saturday afternoon. For the next almost two hours we talked about food, music and movies, just like two old friends. It later dawned on me how obvious it was that Magee and Gussow allowed Balcerek to make a film about them, considering my own positive experience with the director. Below is our lengthy conversation that occurred that day…

 

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David J. Fowlie: So, I know you said you started out as a musician, is that how you came about Satan and Adam?

V. Scott Balcerek: Yeah, I was living in Pittsburgh in 1992 and I just got out of college. You know how when you just get out, especially if you’ve studied in the arts, you’re kind of a pseudo-intellectual? I was actually thinking about going to grad school and study film semiotics and all this high brow stuff. I didn’t study film in school, but anyways, I’m a musician primarily and I did some writing in college and some journalistic stuff. I was at the time realizing that film would be the thing that I could get into because it embodied a lot of the things I was interesting in…writing, journalism, and music. I enjoyed taking photographs as well, and so filmmaking became the thing that encompassed all my interests, because I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing with my life at that point.

But, a friend dragged me out because at the time, I was just out of college and I was editing a film for a friend and we had played in this little pick-up band together (it wasn’t anything serious). And he went to Cal Arts and he had this thesis film he shot about this street singer in Pittsburgh who used to sing in the Hill District which is – I don’t know if you know, but Hill Street Blues was based on the Hill District – an impoverished kind of area…

DJF:…a little rough?

VSB: …it’s rough. But, this blind black guy would sing for his livelihood there and around Pittsburgh. So, it was just a half hour documentary, a Direct Cinema style piece and the first thing I ever edited. That film went on to win a student Academy Award.

DJF: …and you edited it!

VSB: … yes, I cut it. So, a friend of mine told me there’s a similar street act playing at this club in Pittsburgh called The Decade, where all these indie music acts played, and I remember going in there not knowing much about this “band” he raved about aside from the fact that they were both buskers.

DJF: …It was Satan & Adam?

VSB: … yes, it was Satan and Adam – I was blown away, because they sounded like five people up on that stage, but of course they were just a duo.

DJF: So, this is 1992?

VSB: Right. And the reason I mentioned earlier this sort of pithy intellectual bullshit that you go through when you’re young and aimless was because at that time they struck me both musically and intellectually – I knew there had to be something more between these two than just music, one – a sort of grizzled older Mississippi blues artist and the other a white Ivy League educated Jewish…

DJF: …Jewish harmonica player!

VSB: …Jewish harmonica player of twenty some years difference in age! So, in that pithy kind of state, I was thinking that in front of me is an allegory for American music. I didn’t know enough about them, but I though that maybe – and you know, one thing that I’m happy about is that you can read the film that way. You can read it as an allegory for a specifically American thing, which is the way blues music originated. But, think about all the offshoots from the blues like jazz and country and it goes on and on. So, I felt like if I distilled the film down as that, it could be almost a perfect way to study that phenomenon and talk about American music through this character study of these two guys. I don’t think it really became that kind of movie, but that’s what I was thinking. And you can read the movie that way, I think.

DJF: Yeah, I think you can. Obviously, visually it’s striking – we have this footage from the 80s of this skinny white guy playing music in Harlem with this older grizzled black guy. They’re unfazed by how they’re perceived. They’ve simply accepted each other and it’s all about the music. And that’s the cool thing about this is that it doesn’t matter what you look like. It’s just like, “Are you into it?” Well alright, let’s play.

VSB: And I also think that, you know, just from being in bands myself, I used to always say: why were The Beatles so great? It was because that particular collection of people just happened to be magical together. It’s not like you can plan that, ever, and it goes without saying that it’s rare when something just clicks.

DJF: It certainly is. Oh, for sure.

VSB: And so, that was another level. Some people ask why I would make a documentary about these two unknowns off the street. Well, if you look underneath the hood, that to me, the fact that they clicked, it’s proof of what you just said. It’s proof of the power of music, but it doesn’t happen to everyone. Meaning that, it’s just like going on a date with a woman or something like that, you click or you don’t. And it’s just rare when you really find that one and it felt like that with this. So, it became for me, you know outside of this sort of allegorical, intellectualism, it kind of became a bromance.

DJF: It clicked!

VSB: It clicked. It’s like a buddy picture. Two people from the, I used to think of the John Candy movie, where he’s on the road with, I love that film…

DJF: Planes, Trains and Automobiles!

VSB: Yeah! But, it’s like, I used to think about that movie in relation to this, even though has nothing really do with it. But, I used to think about it, because here’s two people from just completely different worlds that should not really be together in the way we see the world these days.

DJF: “Those aren’t pillows!” (both laugh)

VSB: Oh my God, you remembered! (laughs)

DJF: Well yeah, it’s a very Chicago movie. It’s John Hughes.

VSB: Oh, that’s right! That’s John Hughes! Oh my God, I forgot about that.

DJF: It’s a perfect movie and a great Thanksgiving movie.

VSB: Yeah, it is. It is. I still tune in to it every so often.

DJF: I’m baffled that somebody would ask you that question though, because to me it’s “Why not make a movie about these guys?” You know?

VSB: Well, here. Proof positive. I got some grants in the beginning, but I think we did because of the other film, the one that won the Student Academy Award. Because, my friend Craig came in with me, the guy who made the film that won, it’s called “Street Songs”. And he ended up dropping out.

DJF: He’s not doing the film thing anymore?

VSB: No no no, he became a professor in Singapore at a university. He has a credit in the movie, but when Satan disappeared, he felt, “This is going nowhere.” And I was like, “Well, I think I’m gonna keep going, but I’m not sure.” And he was like, “Dude, good luck man.” He’s always been super supportive. He couldn’t be in Singapore and still continue with me. He was just like, “It’s all you, buddy.”

So, anyways, after that period though, we got together these two small grants. We could never get a grant, because I refused to posit the film as “A Race Movie”. Most people were like, “It’s really not about anything.”

DJF: Oh, wow.

VSB: You know what I mean? I applied for every grant. Every one and I never got anything.

DJF: They must’ve said that without watching it. I mean, how could you say that after watching it?

VSB: Well, now it’d be a different story, but this is before there was a cut and I had a trailer and some other stuff, but they just didn’t see the resonance. But my approach has always been ‘character first’ and then…I mean, if you watch “Satan & Adam”, and a lot of people tell me that it’s about so many things, but when you’re trying to get a grant, the film has to be…

DJF: …you got to sell it somehow.

VSB: …you have to sell it with some kind of social issue foremost, because most of these granting agencies have to adhere to their mission statement. I think that they would probably prefer to fund a story about race in America where the “buddy picture” element is secondary. But, I never wanted to do that, because I think people follow characters and once they get attached to them, they learn…

DJF: …they’ll go anywhere with them.

VSB: …they’ll go anywhere with them, but also, the issues that come up through the characters I think have more resonance and power for initiatives that some granting agencies are trying to shine a light on for their audiences.

DJF: I totally agree, because that’s what stood out to when watching the film. I’ll tell you why I said “yes” to watching this movie…because, I’m a big U2 fan…

VSB: (laughs) That’s interesting.

 

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DJF: So, I came into this because after watching the trailer I was like, wait a minute, “Freedom for My People”, that’s these two guys? This is crazy, how did I not know about these guys? How much of a U2 fan am I? I had no idea that they stayed together and went on to make their own album. Once I knew the film was about the two guys from “Rattle and Hum”, I had to watch it. Now that I know more about their story, it makes sense how footage of them playing on the street is included in U2’s movie and soundtrack, considering how they fit with the band’s theme at the time of discovering America.

When I learned who these guys were, I wondered who what happened to them. And as I’m watching you film, I’m thinking here’s a guy, you, who thought to make a movie. What’s most impressive about this movie is how you’ve taken what seems like random street musicians and made them compelling characters. A story like this reminds me how that person on the street has a life and so many times we just walk past them, may throw some change in their cup, but we so often don’t think about them beyond that moment. That’s what this movie reminded me of, but like you said, there’s so much going on here.

VSB: So, you remember that song?

DJF: Oh yeah. Like I said, it fit perfectly on “Rattle and Hum” and it’s such a vibrant, energetic song.

VSB: It’s soulful too.

DJF: Yes, it is. I’m curious how you’re including footage from the late 80s/early 90s and how did you get access to that?

VSB: You’re referring to the U2 footage?

DJF: Well, you incorporate some of the U2 footage in the doc, but you’re getting footage of them in Harlem back in the day. So, how did you acquire that footage?

VSB: Okay, so when we got our first grant, we decided to shoot on film because I was into films like “Straight, No Chaser” and “Let’s Get Lost”…

DJF: Ah, yes. Chet Baker!

VSB: …so, that black and white look, and this is ’93 and ’94 when I was trying to get the money. So, finally we get the money and, it’s like late ’94 I think, and we go up to Harlem and start shooting. So, a lot of the footage that looks really cool, it almost looks like “Rattle and Hum”, because it’s film – for real. It’s real film. That was shot by us, by me. And Harlem wasn’t gentrified yet, so it felt like it probably did around ’86, or at least not that much different. But then in addition to that, we were able to find so much footage because news organizations starting finding out about them. And then a guy who was making a film about Harlem happened to shoot Satan before Adam even showed up. So, this is before 1986. And I contacted him and I bought some of the rights to use that footage. And then one of the big mother loads was that Adam’s cousin just went down there in ’88 and shot some footage on his VHS camera. So, it’s a combination of all that and a number of stills that were shot during the day by three amazing photographers. Then it became a technical thing…

DJF: …because then you gotta edit all this stuff.

VSB: …you gotta cut it all together. But, also some of the video we turned black and white and kinda tightened it up and added a bit of grain to it, so it kind of looked like 16mm film. So filmmakers, they know what’s video and what’s film, but the general public does not. It’s not like I’m out to fool anyone and there’s nothing dishonest about it. My intention was is to make it feel like if you were going in Harlem for the first time and that was the best way to do it.

DJF: Almost like a time machine.

VSB: That’s all I wanted to do and I was able to do it. But, I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I didn’t have access to all this footage. People do ask all the time – because a lot of them know I was ending high school and starting college at that time – how someone at the age I was at could shoot such footage.

DJF: Just to reiterate, you didn’t grow up anywhere near Harlem, right?

VSB: No. I grew up just outside of Pittsburgh. But once they started getting off the street and on tour – it was like, ’91 or ’92 when I saw them play live – and it was just as they were starting to ascend.

DJF: They were going up and down the east coast?

VSB: Yeah, they were starting their ascension. U2’s footage was shot in ’87 and their film came out in ’88. And that was one year after they were playing on the street.

DJF: So, you’re shooting all this in the 90s and I think a lot of filmmakers would be interesting to hear – as you know, it’s hard to say, “I’m gonna stick with this. I’m gonna keep going.” You have that footage that you’ve worked on, but years pass and here we are in 2019. Time passes and a lot happens during all that time. Can you talk about how stuck with it and eventually get in touch with Adam and Sterling and how you see that this could actually be a documentary.

VSB: We got a small amount of grant money in order to start shooting. And the whole idea was to cut a trailer and write more grants and try to go that route with it. I knew we would never get any other kind of commercial type funding because Satan and Adam weren’t famous and documentaries in general were a different beast altogether at that time as far as commercial viability. So, I was in this weird pickle. As I mentioned earlier, my approach to the material was not particularly grantable, and added to that, in the 90’s, a lot of grant funding that might have supported a film like Satan and Adam, literally disappeared. So, that was happening. And then, we come to the bigger part of the saga … Satan disappears. I was like, what the fuck am I doing? This is ridiculous.

 

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DJF: So, all that time though of filming in the mid-90’s, you’re actually hanging out with Adam and filming him too?

VSM: Yeah, but I was able to film him around the time that Sterling disappeared.

DJF: Okay.

VSM: So, when he disappeared, I first went to Adam. I think that might’ve been in ’99, because he disappeared around like ’97/’98. So, in 1999, I was wondering what I was going to do, but thought at least I could get Adam’s perspective. And then I end up finding Sterling by doing a Google search on his name in Mississippi and randomly calling anyone with the last name of Magee – I got hung up on, people would ask me, “How’d you get this number?” and “Don’t ever call here again!” This is just when the White Pages were ported to Google. Do you remember that?

DJF: Oh, I do.

VSM: …and so, I was like, “Hey” – I worked on those Star Wars movies…

DJF: You worked at ILM, right?

VSM: Yeah. That was my day job while I was making this. So, it was weird. I was working on “Star Wars”…

DJF: So, hold on. When you say “Star Wars”, are you talking the prequels or…?

VSM: Yeah, “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones” and also the special …

DJF: The Special Editions!

VSM: I did, I worked on those.

DJF: Oh my! We’ll talk more about that after this.

VSM: So, anyways, after many calls, I finally found a cousin and this guy was like, “He’s in Florida, man.” He gave me his phone number and it was his sister who answered. And she said, “He’s right here.” I found him!

DJF: Did you say “hello” to Satan at that time or were you trying to get a hold of Sterling McGee?

VSM: Well, I called him “Satan” and he was like, “Don’t call me that”, and that’s another interesting thing that’s in the film is that he’s Satan and then he’s not Satan.

DJF: I like that about it though.

VSM: So, I ended up finding him and asked him if I could come down. I didn’t know what state I’d find him in. Originally, I wanted to go down there just to visit mostly but decided to shoot it later after suggesting it with him over the phone. It was only like three people total, very small. Nothing formal. I brought my friend Michael Grady, who’s shot a lot of movies since then. We just went down there in a very chill manner. Our interviews would start out over beers.

DJF: …sit on the porch.

VSB: …it was just really a non-traditional documentary approach. We did do one sit-down interview, but I didn’t even want to do it.

DJF: …but, that’s not him. You wouldn’t be getting him. You gotta get him in his element.

VSB: Right,it was more about Michael Grady and I just sitting there with the camera on the ground, just shooting the shit about whatever. And if the conversation got stilted we’d just talk about guitar or something. And then I’d slide something in like, “You disappeared. What happened?”, and Grady, the most intuitive dude in the world, would just pick up the camera and start to roll at various times. That’s how we did it. It was super loose. We hung out with him like this all day for about 4 days or so.

DJF: Interesting. So, Grady wasn’t just shooting nonstop?

VSM: No, he would just be like – sometimes I’d hit him with my foot.

DJF: “You’d better get this.”

VSM: (laughs) Yeah. But, most of the time, he’s better than me. He just knew. He knew he was gonna say something, so he’d be ready.

DJF: And Sterling didn’t care either way, right?

VSM: No. That’s the other thing – Sterling was so accepting of me. A lot people ask me why I continued making the movie when he was just so down and out, like there’s no return. And I felt that we had developed such a good relationship that I felt like I owed it to him. I know myself, I know if I was in that depressed state, I wouldn’t want anyone interviewing me. The fact that he did that for me meant a lot.

DJF: Okay, so back up a little bit. He knew you even before he wound up in Florida?

VSM: Oh yeah. When we started shooting in 1995 he was present. And at the time, I thought they would rise up and become a famous blues act. And that I would document the implications of their journey. I had no idea that it would take such a left turn.

 

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DJF: So, let’s talk about when you started out telling this story, forming a working relationship with these two. Where they both on board?

VSM: Yeah, they were both on board, because we had sent them the “Street Songs” film, the one that won the Student Academy Award. And they were like, “we’ve had people want to film us, but these guys are young and really into it.” They liked ”Street Songs” and how we treated the subject with sensitivity. Satan particularly appreciated that.

DJF: Yeah, it seems like maybe in the first half of the documentary there’s kind of a focus on Adam, because we’re getting their story from his perspective. It’s as if he’s a great gateway to the whole story. We learn a little about his past and where he was at in life when he came upon Satan, which is really interesting. Was it framed that way intentionally or you just figured Adam’s perspective was a great in-road to their story?

VSB: That’s a great question and I get it a lot. It was very very difficult for me. I remember writing this in grants, proposals and stuff, because I did not want it to come from the point of view of…

DJF: …the white guy.

VSB: …the white guy, yeah. Satan disappeared so I started to depend on Adam, because at that time, that’s all I had. It’s strange to me; and no offense to you, but I did get that question often and I feel like it’s a pointed question. It’s like, “Oh, here he is, another privileged white guy making a film”, even though my dad was a factory worker and I grew up blue collar. But, I was educated. So, I know these, I don’t know what you call them – neo-liberal barbs? I don’t know what they are.

DJF: … but, like they have somewhat of an agenda?

VSB: …yeah, it’s only educated white people who ask these questions. So, basically, since I lost Satan, I had to depend on Adam to tell the story. But, even when I found Satan, he could hardly give a cogent interview. Plus, he spoke aphoristically anyway, even before he went missing, and I just had a really hard time constructing the film. As time went on, it got harder and harder. And so, I don’t know if you read the New York Times piece that came out today…

DJF: …I did not.

VSB: …well, you should check it out. You can see that the writer is in the same position, because he calls me and says, “Well, I’m gonna call Satan” and talk to him. And I was like, “Okay, good luck. You know, you’re not gonna get much”. And, it’s in the interview – read it.

DJF: He’s incoherent?

VSB: I don’t want to say that he’s incoherent. I understand him…

DJF: …but, as far as an interview subject…

VSB: There’s no way I could put that on screen and not make a wildly interesting tapestry…like a Sun Ra movie! (both laugh) You know what I mean?

DJF: Very abstract! That would be interesting.

VSB: Yeah and here’s the thing, it would be interesting, but I just didn’t want to tell it like that. That’s my right. So, what happens is Adam – and here’s the second thing I wanted to mention – while I was cutting, there was a bit more Sterling in there. And it just didn’t feel right and I didn’t know why because he was talking and then I realized what it was…I started to take him out and have other people talk about him and it created almost this kind of cool…

DJF: …almost like a mythic figure?

VSB: …a mythic figure. And he IS mythic. And for me, that was the truth. That became the truth. It’s so funny, I was just in Harlem showing the film and there’s this black woman in there and she said, “I really like how you handled race.”

DJF: But, what’s presented about the subject of race in the film is unintentional.

VSB: Exactly!

DJF: Their story just played out that way.

VSB: It just happened that way. He is mythical. Once you name yourself Satan, you establish mythical status for yourself.

DJF: Well yeah, he named himself Satan, but it was also his persona, his long-standing presence on Harlem, that made him a myth. The fact that everybody in the neighborhood knew him is interesting, in and of itself.

VSB: Exactly.

DJF: And when you interviewed people on the street, they could talk about Satan and he became even more interesting. Other people’s perspective of him – you know, the guy on the street who know him is gonna have something to say about him and then anyone else who meets him, like The Edge, is gonna have a different perspective on him, because he just stumbled on to him. So, it’s all these multi-faceted perceptions of this mythic character that come together to paint an interesting picture.

VSB: And you see that in “Searching For Sugarman” as well. When I saw that movie I felt, “Ah ha! This approach will work”. Not only did Sterling not want to talk, but…

DJF: …it just wasn’t going to work.

VSB: …it wasn’t going to work and he just didn’t want to do that.

DJF: Yeah. I know what you’re saying.

VSB: And Satan wanted to speak through his music anyway. He always did.

DJF: It would almost do a disservice to do a straight-up interview with Satan.

VSB: Oh, 100%. This is the irony…the film is stronger because of the approach that I took. I stand by it. I dunno. All the pointed questions I get on this, lately, it just goes right through me.

DJF: Well, that’s cool because even though I’m white, I’m not an intellectual (both laugh)

VSB: No, but you’re – it’s mostly people in the audience who say these things. Maybe somebody who studies cultural anthropology. You know what I mean?

DJF: Yeah. And the reason I bring up Adam is because he’s just as interesting a character as Satan, because as we learn in the film, around that time (1986) he was kind of ‘finding himself’, he had a great Ivy League education, but he picks up the harmonica and finds this street musician and that’s what he starts doing. You and I were both talking earlier that we’re from Italian families, can you imagine telling your family that you’re gonna be a street musician now? You’d ostracized by your Italian family! (both laugh)

VSB: I know, right? I can hear them say, “What the fuck are you doing?” You know what I mean? What is wrong with you? Seriously.

DJF: So, that’s what was so cool. He’s basically stopping and redirecting his life and following something he’s passionate about. That right there is an inspiring story. So, it’s not like all we have here is this white guy’s perspective or whatever…it’s a fascinating story regardless what color it is. The fact that Adam was brazen enough to be skinny white guy just showing up and saying, “Hey, can I play with you?” – there’s a story to tell there, as you know. So, that’s why I asked you about how you framed this with Adams’s point of view. It flows so well as a documentary. Yet, it’s so interesting that you can almost make a documentary about the documentary. There’s so much that you’ve gone through over the years. And then it’s so cool to have a backstory for Sterling, about his past musical career. It’s something you would never know by seeing him on the street.

VSB: What’s also interesting is how he wouldn’t even tell Adam that stuff. And when I asked him, he’d say, “That’s nothing!” I would say tell me about Marvin Gaye…wouldn’t tell me. He was nice to me, but he wouldn’t tell me any stories. So, when I get those questions like, “Why don’t we hear more from the black person?” (laughs) Well, he didn’t want to do it. I dunno, but here’s the thing…did he push me away? No. He invited me back into his life and he kept doing it. It kinda just is what it is.

The other thing about the Adam thing you mentioned is that their stories are very blues-like – you know, his girlfriend left him and…

DJF: (both laugh)…I’m just gonna pick up this harmonica…

VSB: …you know what I mean? I mean, it’s almost like trite in some ways, but it actually happened. He loses his woman. And Sterling loses his woman too, she dies. They were young and she dies of cancer. It’s like the classic, “I lost my baby” trope and that’s where the songs come from sometimes. That was just another element…

DJF: …Yeah, they found each other at the Crossroads! (both laugh) It’s so true though and I think what’s unexpected about this film is its relatability. I think that anyone who’s lived long enough has experienced pitfalls and potholes, you know? And life is gonna take some unexpected turns and I think it’s really interesting to see two totally different people who just decide to do something together and run with it. I thought it was very interesting though – you know how it is because you’ve been in bands – there’s always one person who has a clearer vision of where they can go with the music in the future. Obviously, that’s Adam here, because Sterling is about the here and now, not the big picture. Did they ever talk to you about what they envisioned for their future back then?

VSB: Well, they did make three albums and then there were a bunch that were sort of self-released after Sterling kind of got his mojo back. But, yeah they wanted to keep recording. They were active. They were doing it, man. You know, it’s funny…I do think it was Adam, they were like two sides of a coin. I mean, Sterling was super into it, but think about it, he had to sing the songs, play guitar, do all of that, play everything…

DJF: …It’s a lot to do. Yeah, there’s a point in the documentary where they’re kind of both commiserating stating they don’t have roadies and they have to carry their own mics, amps and stuff.

VSB: Yeah. I toured and I was such a baby about it. It was terrible. I hated it. I did. In some ways, I kind of got out of it, because I was like, “I don’t want to do it.” I love music and I love playing out and it’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of fun to play in front of an awesome crowd. I mean, there’s nothing like it, you know?

DJF: There’s a lot that goes into before and after playing live.

VSB: Hell, yeah.

DJF: And if you’re not up for that, it’s hard.

VSB: Yeah, it was tough.

 

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DJF: As I mentioned, one of the cool things about the documentary is how it flows. The fact that Sterling disappears and you stuck it out and eventually found him. It’s at that point where the documentary takes on an even more interesting turn. It reminds me if the people in our lives who disappear and drop out for a while. Like, what happened to my art teacher or choir director…

VSB: …yeah, pre-Facebook! (both laugh)

DJF: Yeah! What happen to the mentors in my life? What has transpired between the time that I last saw them and now? This kind of captures that. They go on to live a life and sometimes it winds up being different from how you remember them. What this documentary captures is how Sterling, Satan, he still has that spark, when you find him in Florida. Then you capture him down there, it’s like that spark gets brighter. Were you noticing that as you filming him down there?

VSB: Well, I got that actually through Kevin. Because there was a certain point where I was like, “Okay, this is probably over,” and it was at the point where there was the scene where he couldn’t even pick up a pic to play.

DJF: Right, right. And Kevin is your…

VSB: …Kevin is the guy at the nursing home…

DJF: Oh, that’s right. Okay.

VSB: And actually, he says this in the film, but it’s directed towards Adam, where Adam is like, “It’s over, right?” and Kevin says something like, “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings” No no, he says, “Far from it.” Far from it being over. We were down there and he’s slowly starting to play again. And so what I did is I sent Kevin a camera and just said, “Okay, well prove it to me.”

DJF: And what year is this?

VSB: This is around 2007, but he started to pick back up the guitar somewhere between 2003 and 2005. But, Sterling knew that I wanted him to return. I don’t know if I had an effect on him. Some people say that I did. But wait, you asked a question, didn’t you?

DJF: Well yeah, just about how whether or not it was apparent to you that his spark was reigniting. We thought he wasn’t gonna play anymore, but he’s getting back into it.

VSB: Well yeah, Kevin had told me that Sterling was playing again. I have to admit that at first, I was skeptical.

DJF: Yeah, I hear ya.

VSB: He sent back the camera I gave him and I checked out the footage and it wasn’t that bad. I couldn’t believe that he was strumming because the last time I was down there…

DJF: …he couldn’t even hold a pic…

VSB: …yeah and I think that there was some drugs involved. Because sometimes when you’re in a nursing home…

DJF: …you could be overmedicated.

VSB: I think. I can’t say that for sure, but it felt that way.

DJF: And maybe it’s also some physical therapy that helped him.

VSB: Yeah and I think something happened where Kevin thought, “Wow, this dose is too high and I think maybe his relatives came in and lowered it, because I remember complaining that there was no way that he could be this dopey, you know what I mean?

DJF: Yeah, just totally out of it.

VSB: So, I was amazed when I got the footage back. That was like a year later and Kevin was like, “Don’t write him off.” People were coming around. Think about this, the internet starts to break out and one thing that’s interesting for me is that when I started this there was no social media, but what I was impressed by is that, only in retrospect, the way that they met, that would not happen now. We live in a mediated world. So, if you’re on Facebook, you may try to look up some street musician on Facebook…

DJF: …or I would take a video of him, throw it up on Facebook or Instagram and say, “Hey, check this guy out!”…

VSB: …but, you probably wouldn’t approach him.

DJF: No. Probably not.

VSB: And Adam did and that’s how we used to do things. We don’t do that anymore.

DJF: So, the second incarnation of Sterling, the internet was magic because all these people started finding out shit and Kevin started posting stuff. He would post his history, “Did you know this guy who played with Marvin Gaye is living right down here?” All of a sudden, the whole town started to coalesce around Sterling and they raised him up. And that was a real beautiful moment for me, because that’s what Sterling did for other people on the street. He was the local preacher in Harlem, he gave away his money and he would take in guys who were shunned by the church…he would take them in. And now, he was getting that back. But, social media helped there. It’s just interesting. I thought about that much later. It’s like he’s getting back all that he’s given.

VSB: Yeah, it’s almost a karmic type thing.

DJF: It’s pretty amazing.

VSB: Kevin always says it’s karma…Satan karma.

DJF: There’s a Beatles song in there. “The love you give is equal to the love you take”…

VSB: …Yes! There’s also, someone has said, “Keep on, keeping on” about this film.

DJF: Sure.

VSB: That’s a blues thing. Keep on keeping on. You just move through it.

DJF: Well, that’s a good motto. So then, at some point you insert some talking heads here and there, like Harry Shearer and Al Sharpton, and I’m like, “What’s going on here?” How did you get those guys, along with The Edge, of course?

VSB: I don’t know if you know this, but when I had a trailer only, it was seen by Frank Marshall.

DJF: Oh yeah? Going back to ILM!

VSB: What’s funny is I didn’t even meet him through there. I met him through my sales agent in New York. And they were like, “We think Frank would like this”, but what I didn’t know and a lot of people don’t know this, but Frank is a musician.

DJF: Oh, wow.

VSB: Yeah, his dad was a musician as a living. And at one point Frank had to make the decision whether or not he was gonna be a music producer or a film producer. He picked film producer and the rest is history.

DJF: Lucky him. (both laugh)

VSB: He loved the film and it was amazing, because, you know, I grew up watching the films he produced…

DJF: …Heck, yeah…

VSB: I mean, come on, he did all the “Bourne” films…

DJF: …yeah, I’m even a big defender of one of the films he directed, “Eight Below“…

VSB: …yeah and he directed some great stuff too. He’s a great guy, man, and I’m so honored for him to, I couldn’t believe it…

DJF: …so, he called you up or what?

VSB: Well, he has a documentary division now which started around, I think 2005, and he’s got a guy named Ryan Suffern, who runs that division and who became a writer/producer on the film. Frank became a producer on the film as well – they were both amazing and I was so lucky to have them aboard.

DJF: The film premiered at Tribeca, this year or last year?

VSB: …in 2018 and then all of last year, and then it’s been just festival after festival. Every month there was a festival…Poland, it played in Poland.

DJF: Were you there for Poland?

VSB: They sent me to Poland. Loved it. It won the Audience Award there.

DJF: Wow.

VSB: And there were a lot of good movies there. This festival is called AFF, American Film Festival in Poland. I didn’t know much about it, but people were telling me it was a super respectable festival. So, I go there and it was such an honor.

 

 

DJF: I think a lot of people would be interesting in how your two subjects, Satan & Adam, felt about the end result. What did they think about the film?

VSB: I was nervous about, not so much about Adam, but about Sterling and his family. So, what we did is, a week of two before Tribeca, we flew down to Florida, rented a library, put up a blu-ray for his family, his family is huge. I think he’s one of like twelve…

DJF: …was his wife there too?

VSB: …Ms. Macy?

DJF: Yeah.

VSB: No, Ms. Macy passed. Right before…

DJF: …that wasn’t part of the doc…

VSB: No, it wasn’t. We actually thought about reopening the movie and then we were like, “Man, you know what? We did this before…”

DJF: …it’s gotta end somewhere.

VSB: Right. Wait, what were we talking about?

DJF: You were talking about the screening in the library for the family.

VSB: Oh! First of all, they loved it.

DJF: Oh, great!

VSB: I was so nervous. I was the most nervous, even more nervous than Tribeca.

DJF: Well, that’s understandable.

VSB: So, what happened was, when they were watching the movie, he’s got a lot of jokesters in his family…

DJF: …were they ribbing him, making fun of him?

VSB: Yeah! (both laugh) And I’m thinking like, “Oh my gosh, here’s these real heartfelt moments” and they’re like, “Ohhh, Uncle Sterling!” (laughs)

DJF: It’s almost like watching family slides at a holday get together…

VSB: …that was my next sentence. I can’t believe you said that! (both laugh) They were like, “Oh there’s blah-blah-blah’s house! We were just over there last week” and it was almost as if the movie wasn’t even playing. You know what I mean? So, it was clear they were having fun, they don’t really give a shit, but that’s fine. But then afterwards, we took them all out for dinner to this great Greek restaurant that everyone there loves – and there was like, easily thirty people there – and one by one, the family just came over and said, “Thanks, man. I never knew that stuff about my uncle,” and “We feel like he’s preserved now in history.”

DJF: Oh, wow.

VSB: So, I felt so relieved, because I was really nervous, because it could’ve been like, “Why is some white boy doing this…”

DJF: That’s so powerful to hear that, because that’s something that you wind up hearing at someone’s memorial, but here you’ve made this documentary that opens up their world about who their family member is. That’s really cool.

VSB: Yeah. And the proceeds for all his recordings, which I hope get more attention now, that’ll just go to his family. Because, you know, he’s gettin’ up there. He’s gonna be 83 on May 20th and there’s a big screening for him, but he can hardly walk. So, it’s upsetting.

DJF: Aw, that’s hard. So, that’s the reaction on Sterling’s side. How about Adam?

VSB: Adam was a different vibe for me. I think there’s a part of me, probably because I’m a white guy (laughs), but I really relate to Adam. I was a musician and when I was in a band and there were a couple of black guys in the band, I felt super authenticated. You know what I mean? Because I think that’s what whites do when they love jazz or blues or hip-hop. They need to feel like they’re part of the culture or something…

DJF: …it’s funny you say that because I was the only white dude in the gospel choir in college.

VSB: Really? So, you know what I mean. It kinda makes you feel special, right?

DJF: Kind of, yeah. But, what makes me feel special is that I felt accepted.

VSB: Exactly.

DJF: Not that I stood out…

VSB: …it’s a good feeling. You want to be accepted! I know for me, someone once said, “Man, you play like a black guy!” and I was like…

DJF: Thank you!

VSB: Thank you! And that was like the biggest thing. But, since I related to Adam, I wasn’t too afraid of his reaction to the movie. I also felt like, in a way, he should feel lucky…

DJF: But in the end, he’s pretty content with the final outcome?

VSB: Oh yeah. He is. I mean, he was sometimes very guarded about – he didn’t know early one what I was doing. Remember when I started in the 90s, that’s when there was a lot of political correctness and racial tension in that era. And then it kinda, well it never goes away, but you didn’t hear that much about it, until like the 2000s and then now it’s sprung back up big time, as you know…

DJF: …hmmm, I wonder why? (both laugh)

VSB: …right? Anyways, I think early in those days when there was this kind of racial animosity, that maybe he would be seen “the white interloper” who was taking advantage of the black guy. And he was worried that I was gonna do that to him. But over time, when he started seeing – I didn’t send him cuts ever, because I knew that would open up a can of worms – but it was more like a trust that we had developed. It took up until like 2000 or 2001 for him to be like, “okay, I think you’re on the right track.” And I always had his heart in mind, because I believe in Adam. He walked the walk, man. You can’t deny that. Satan liked him too. Satan loved him. You know, they were buddies.

DJF: Well, that’s obvious. But, it is interesting to see how a documentary like this, which has been in production for essentially 23 years…but man, I give you credit for sticking with it all these years. That’s crazy.

VSB: Thank you.

DJF: I mean “crazy” in the best possible sense. It’s an impressive accomplishment.

VSB: You know when people would say something like that to me, like that I’m either crazy or OCD or there’s something wrong with me, my fiancé would tell me, “No no, you believe in these guys and it came from your heart.” But, it’s weird. It took someone else to tell me that. I think I just got so wrapped up in it. But, really what it comes down to is my connection with Satan. Like I said earlier, I couldn’t end the film. There was something inside of me that was sure he’d come back. He’s gonna rise like a phoenix. It was a total roll of the dice though, cuz it might not have happened. The film teeters on the idea of whether or not he’s gonna come back. A lot of people think that in the middle of the movie that, “Oh, he’s dead,” and they’re gonna say he’s dead within the next ten minutes. I don’t know if you felt that, but a lot of people have. I had no idea that would happen.

 

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DJF: I didn’t think that, because in my mind I thought, “Would they really make a documentary like this if the guy died?” (both laugh) That’s kind of a downer of a documentary, which this film ultimately is not. Obviously, it becomes clear that the gist of the documentary and what is something to really celebrate here is the fact that these two came together. So, if the guys was to die, that’d be really hard to make a documentary like that. I think what surprised me most about the documentary is what it has to offer. I thought it was gonna be like, “Oh, remember these guys who showed up in “Rattle and Hum” movie? Here’s where they are now.” But, the film really speaks about many things that we experience in life, mainly how life ebbs and flows, and how a community will embrace you at some point in life and then later on, there may be another community that can be there for you, with room for reciprocity. It’s just much more powerful than I ever would’ve thought.

VSB: Yeah. I’ve gotten a lot of that. It’s a life study.

DJF: It is. It’s unexpected. I felt the need to talk to somebody immediately after watching it. Not just about the film, but life in general.

VSB: It’s so interesting how this thing just could’ve fallen apart so deeply and it would’ve been the most depressing thing … I don’t know what I would’ve done with the footage. The last scene was Sterling not even being able to lift a pic? I don’t know what kind of film I’d be able to make with that. I always say that if it wasn’t for Kevin … but also character-wise it was Sterling too, because he has this ability to draw people in – he pulled in Adam, he pulled in me, and he pulled U2 in… the list goes on.

DJF: …he’s got a magnetism.

VSB: …it is undeniable. And he came back. He did. All those people in Florida. They didn’t get paid at dime. They all gathered around him. He has this uncanny ability to pull you in. He’s not a manipulator…

DJF: …he just accepts you.

VSB: …he accepts you. Yeah, that’s a good way to put it.

DJF: Well, I hope people accept this documentary. I can’t see why they wouldn’t.

VSB: I hope so, man. At the very least they get to see something unfold…kinda like what Michael Apted did? There’s “Boyhood”, but that had a narrative. It’s hard to think about other films that went on this long.

DJF: I can’t think of any.

VSB: I loved “Hoop Dreams” by Steve James and that took a long time.

DJF: That’s true. So, do you have other ideas for movies, maybe another documentary?

VSB: Yeah, I would like to do another music thing, but I kind of got spoiled with this film in the sense that this story became such a rich tapestry. I feel like, if I did another one…all I know is that I’m not gonna go another 23 years on anything (both laugh), unless it’s the most amazing story in the world. I’m not sure what’s next for me right now…maybe some sleep.

DJF: Sleep is always good. Well, I really appreciate hanging out with you today, man. It was really cool.

VSB: Thanks so much. It was great to meet you.

 

satanadamtribeca

(from left to right) Adam Gussow, Sterling “Mister Satan” Magee, and V. Scott Balcerek at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival

 

“Satan & Adam” is available on iTunes and DVD and will be coming to Netflix as of June 1st. More info can be found here. 

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