‘Satan and Adam’: Mt. Pleasant native films unlikely blues duo
A filmmaker from small-town Western Pennsylvania makes a movie about an unlikely blues duo busking on the streets of New York City.
It sounds like a movie in itself — especially because it was 30 years in the making.
That’s the story behind “Satan and Adam,” a documentary directed by Mt. Pleasant native Scott Balcerek playing at 8 p.m. May 19 at Regent Square Theater in Pittsburgh.
The title characters are Sterling “Mr. Satan” McGee, a black Southern bluesman who backed legends like James Brown and King Curtis, and Adam Gussow, a Princeton-educated, white, Jewish man who played in some high school and college bands.
When Gussow first sees McGee, the older man has abandoned his given name and his career to play on the streets of Harlem. (In the film, McGee explains that, from his mother’s Christian standpoint, he was serving the devil by playing the blues, hence the name “Mr. Satan.”)
Harmonica in hand, Gussow asks to sit in and a strange and powerful musical collaboration and friendship are forged, taking the pair from the sidewalk to clubs, opening for Buddy Guy at a Central Park concert, the New Orleans Jazz Festival and on tour across the eastern U.S. and Europe.
‘You’ve gotta see these two’
Balcerek says a fellow musician friend took him to hear the duo play in 1992 at The Decade, a now-defunct bar in Pittsburgh’s Oakland section.
“He said, ‘You’ve gotta see these two,’” Balcerek says. “The collaboration didn’t make any sense, but the music was just incredible.”
At the time, Balcerek, a University of Pittsburgh grad, was working on a film project about local street musician Bill Dorsey.
“He was black and blind and lived in the Hill District,” he says. “A lot of Pittsburghers know about him.”
That film, “Street Songs: Pittsburgh Street Singer, Bill Dorsey,” was the thesis project of Balcerek’s friend Craig McTurk, who was studying at the California Institute of the Arts. “Street Songs” won a 1994 Student Academy Award.
The pair went on to start work on “Satan and Adam,” but two years in, McTurk left to teach in Singapore. Balcerek says he carried on with the project, paying other friends in airfare and meals for their help.
“Then we lost our subject,” he says.
’Go see the movie’
McGee dropped from view in 1998, one of the major reasons the film took so long to complete.
Balcerek won’t say what happened after that: “There has to be a reason for people to go see the movie.”
It’s coming to Netflix in June, Balcerek says, and is available on iTunes. DVDs can be obtained from satanandadamfilm.com.
Balcerek will be on hand for the May 19 screening and a question-answer session at Regent Square.
Now living in San Francisco, he says he likes to get back to Pennsylvania about twice a year but was so busy traveling with “Satan and Adam” in 2018 that he didn’t get home.
With the Pittsburgh showing, “for sure I was gonna come home and spend time with my mom,” Balcerek says. “I’m super excited to show it to my fellow Pittsburghers.”
The program is second in a Pittsburgh Center for Arts and Media three-film series showcasing filmmakers with Pittsburgh ties.
“Staring at the Sun,” by Butler native Harry Greenberger played on May 12, while “FUTURE LANGUAGE: The Dimensions of VON LMO,” by former Pittsburgh Filmmakers student Lori Felker will play on May 26.
Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Shirley at 724-836-5750, [email protected] or via Twitter .