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Theatrical release poster
Theatrical release poster

Crossroads is a 1986 American coming-of-age musical drama film inspired by the legend of blues musician Robert Johnson. Starring Ralph Macchio, Joe Seneca and Jami Gertz, the film was written by John Fusco and directed by Walter Hill and features an original score featuring Ry Cooder and Steve Vai on the soundtrack's guitar, and harmonica by Sonny Terry. Vai also appears in the film as the devil's guitar player in the climactic guitar duel.

Fusco was a traveling blues musician prior to attending New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, where he wrote Crossroads as an assignment in a master class led by the screenwriting giants Waldo Salt and Ring Lardner, Jr. The student screenplay won first place in the national FOCUS Awards (Films of College and University Students) and was sold to Columbia Pictures while Fusco was still a student.

Plot


Seventeen year old Eugene Martone has a fascination for blues music while studying classical guitar at the Juilliard School for Performing Arts in New York City. Researching blues and guitar music brings famed Robert Johnson's mythically creative acclaim to his attention; especially intriguing are the legends surrounding exactly how Johnson became so talented – most notably the one claiming he "sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads", as well as a famed "missing song" that was lost, supposedly evermore, to the world.

In his quest to find this song, he researches old archived newspaper clippings, learning that Johnson's longtime friend, musician Willie Brown, is alive and incarcerated for murder or attempted murder in a nearby minimum security hospital. Eugene goes to see the elderly man, who denies several times that he is that Willie Brown. He finally admits his identity after hearing Eugene play some blues (but notes that Eugene "plays with no soul"). Willie then says he knows the missing Robert Johnson tune in question but refuses to give it to Eugene unless the boy breaks him out of the facility and gets him to Mississippi, where he has unfinished business to settle. Eugene agrees and they head south. The boy soon realizes, however, that Willie is constantly running minor scams such as claiming that he has more money than he actually has to cover their bus tickets. With only $40 on them, they end up "hoboing" from Memphis to rural Mississippi.

During their quest, Eugene and Willie experience the blues legacy of Robert Johnson first-hand, taking part in an impromptu jam session at a "jook joint" (as Willie calls it), where Eugene is given the nickname "Lightning" by Willie because of his musical skill. When Eugene jokingly suggests to Willie that he himself ought to "sell his soul to the Devil at the crossroads", Willie strikes him, angrily telling him he should never joke like that.

The pair meet 17-year-old Frances who hitchhikes with them and is fleeing her abusive step-father. She and Eugene start a physical relationship. Before long, she abandons him and Willie to continue her own journey, leaving Eugene heartbroken but with a deeper feeling for the blues. Heartbroken, he plays on an old Fender Telecaster guitar using a Pignose amplifier that Willie helped him buy. Willie confesses that there is no missing Johnson song, but tells the boy that he has proven himself far beyond what learning any blues song could ever teach him. Some days earlier, Willie also confides that the secret of playing the blues is using a slide — a short piece of pipe that fits over the third finger.

When they reach a rural crossroads in the middle of nowhere in Mississippi, Willie reveals the ultimate secret; his ability on the harmonica came about because of a deal with the devil made at this very location. The Devil, "Scratch", shows up and says that the contract for Willie's soul is still valid, even if Willie is ultimately dissatisfied with how his life turned out.

Eugene, believing the other two are joking around, steps into the conversation. The Devil offers a challenge: If Eugene can come to a special concert and win a guitar battle against his ringer guitarist, then Willie gets his soul back. If Eugene loses, then Eugene also forfeits his soul. Despite Willie's protests, Eugene agrees to the deal. Willie and Eugene are transported to a music hall, where metal-blues guitar master Jack Butler, who also sold his soul for musical ability, is wowing the crowd with his prowess. Eugene, now understanding the situation, receives a mojo bag from Willie to hold in his pocket. He also slips his slide on, giving him a perceived advantage over his opponent.

Eugene matches Butler throughout their guitar duel, and is eventually able to win the battle by falling back on his classical training playing a Paganini arrangement (based on an obscure mythos regarding the Devil) and performing music that his opponent cannot match. The Devil tears up Willie's contract, freeing the bluesman's soul.

Willie and Eugene are transported back to Mississippi, where they start walking again, talking of cities they plan to visit.

Cast


Production


The script was an original by John Fusco, who had long been interested in blues music. He worked as a blues singer and musician but had been warned by a doctor to rest his voice. In 1981 his girlfriend, who was working at a rest home, told him that an old black man with a harmonica had been admitted. Fusco went to visit him and on the way dreamt up a story about what would happen if the player was a legendary blues player. This gave him the idea for the story.[2] He expanded on the myth of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil at the crossroads. Coincidentally, Johnson was inducted to the inaugural class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in January 1986, while the film was in production.

Fusco wrote the script as his Master's Thesis at New York University. It was only his second screenplay. Producer Mark Farliner acted as Fusco's independent adviser on it and later helped get it made.[3] Fusco was paid $250,000.[4]

Jami Gertz was cast as the female lead. "She had the warmth I was looking for," Hill said, "and she was feisty, but I wondered, is she strong enough? She has to put Macchio through the experience of falling in love, and then she has to leave him, to strengthen his character for the movie's final showdown. I decided to go with her, and I was amazed by how strong she seemed on the screen."[5]

Hill was aware of some surface similarities to The Karate Kid: "You boil it down, and it sounds like a young kid and a wise old guy and their showdown with evil," said Hill. "But if you really look at 'Crossroads,' it's a completely different movie...I knew my most difficult task would be creating real, believable scenes between Macchio and Seneca. They had to be real characters; with an ongoing reality level, to work at all. You have to set the stage, or when your movie shifts gears to fantasy, you lose your audience."[5]

Shooting took place on location in Mississippi as well as Hollywood. Blues legend Frank Frost makes a cameo.

"I think the blues still speaks to kids today," said Ry Cooder, who performed the music with Steve Vai. "It's so old that it's new."[6]

The filmmakers shot sad and happy endings and both were tested with audiences; the happy ending was chosen.[7] (The unhappy ending had Joe Seneca's character dying.[8])

Awards and nominations


Soundtrack


Ry Cooder said he spent a year working on the soundtrack.[11]

Critical response


Farliner said, "This is as tricky a picture to market as anything. I was the first one who tried to sell the story. I know how tricky it is... It could be a classic crossover movie. But you could blow that opportunity real quick with a bad campaign." He thought Columbia had an excellent marketing team and liked that the studio spent $6 million on launching it.[12]

According to Ry Cooder, the film "went down the tubes".[11] The film managed a domestic total gross of $5,839,031.[13]

As of 2018, the film had a 73% certified "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.[14]

Roger Ebert in his review stated that the movie "borrows so freely and is a reminder of so many other movies that it's a little startling, at the end, to realize how effective the movie is and how original it manages to feel despite all the plunderings." He praised the film's acting and music, giving the movie 3.5 stars out of 4.[15]

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