Crossroads (1986)

Year 1986

Ralph Macchio   as  Eugene "Lightning Boy" Martone  
Joe Seneca   as Willie "Blind Dog" Brown
Jami Gertz as Frances
Robert Judd as Scratch
Steve Vai as Jack Butler
Joe Morton as Scratch's Assistant
Director - Walter Hill
Screenwriter - John Fusco
Original Music - Ry Cooder

If you know who Robert Johnson is, then you might like Crossroads. If you can tell the difference between John Lee Hooker and Willie Dixon, then you might like Crossroads. If you think Howlin' Wolf when you hear the name Chester Arthur Burnett, then you might like Crossroads. That's because this movie is about the blues. I don't mean depression, I mean the music known as the blues.

Some people say the music is repetitive. I say it's nuanced and distilled. It's wonderful stuff.

Robert Johnson is arguably the founder of modern blues. Oh, the blues were around a long time before Robert Johnson. Unlike most musicians who used traditional songs, Robert Johnson wrote a lot of his own songs and polished the Delta Blues sound.

Things to know about Robert Johnson related to the movie:

  1. He recorded 29 song titles.
  2. He claimed to have made a deal with the devil to make him famous.
  3. The deal was made at a crossroad.
  4. He was poisoned by a jealous husand.
  5. Weakened by the poison, he died of pneumonia shortly after.
  6. A number of his songs have allowed rock groups to be successful.
  7. A recent hypothesis is that his unique sound was the result of detuning.

Robert Johnson was "discovered" in the mid-1960s. A lot of groups, The Rolling Stones and Cream especially, covered many of his songs. In fact, one of my favorite Stones songs, "Love in Vain" is a Robert Johnson cover.

Here're some of his songs and who gained success or recognition from their cover.

One song that keeps being referred to in the movie but has not been covered is "Hellhound On My Trail".


So here's the plot. A guitar prodigy at Juilliard, Eugene Martone (Macchio) has a love of the blues. He knows of a man in a prison ward of a hospital who played with Robert Johnson. That man, Willie Brown (Seneca) claims to know of a thirtieth song by Johnson that wasn't recorded. In exchange for the song, Martone agrees to break Brown out and take him home back down south. What follows is their road trip.

It's not quite a typical road trip type of movie. Oh, the adventures are pretty standard but the fact that they serve the purpose of priming Martone to appreciate his musical love makes them legitimate.

The trio of reprobates includes the the dubious Brown who's a liar and thief. Still, he's not evil. He's trying to get home for his own reasons and at the same time he's trying to ensure that Martone understands the roots of blues. He does both using whatever means are handy.

Then there's Martone who is an extraordinary guitarist (thanks to Ry Cooder) but lacks feeling. He hits the right notes, and the music Martone plays is good, but there's that little bit of something missing. Martone is a wet behind the ears city boy from a wealthy dysfunctional family. Not exactly the heart of what the blues are about. The road trip is essential for Martone grow to the point where he can express himself musically.

And there's Frances (Gertz). She's the street-wise kid with more common sense than Martone but still innocent to a certain degree.

Adventures include falling in love and losing a girl, outwitting a southern town boss, being robbed by local authorities, being held accountable by country bumpkins, and discovering how to perform in front of a crowd.

Walter Hill directed this movie, and like another movie of his, Streets of Fire it's light weight so the bad guys are never violent. That doesn't mean it's fluff since there's corruption and threats of violence. But the lack of intensity makes it easy viewing. You don't have to work at enjoying this movie.

Good things about this movie include the acting. Macchio is believable as a guitarist and so is Gertz as a runaway with California stars in her eyes. Seneca steals a lot of scenes as the harmonica playing "Blind Dog" but even he's not as good as Robert Judd who plays a character named Scratch.

Every good movie needs a memorable villain and Robert Judd does Scratch justice. Judd's smile alone wins almost every scene he's in.

Also good is the pacing of the music. Ry Cooder wrote good but formulaic blues riffs for the early part of the film. But as Martone grows, the music becomes more emotional and complex. It's a pleasure.

Some of the lines are pretty good. When Frances leaves, she says, "There are no good-byes on the road." Brown agrees with her.

When three black cops take the trio's money in one small town, Brown comments even though he's been away for years, some things have changed and some things haven't. The episode is a nice vignette.

If you're a guitarist or follow the rockers, then the cameo by Steve Vai is sure to please.

Bad things about the movie? It's definitely niche. If you don't like the blues, then this movie won't hold your interest. If you haven't lived down South, you might think that the adventures are contrived. I assure you that there's nothing unbelievable about the situations that the group gets into.

The ending may or may not seem predictable. I liked it. But, like the blues, it's to be taken at face value except for any sexual innuendo. Even the innuendo is pretty obvious with the dancer changing sides to be with the victor. ("Love goes out the door when money comes innuendo" - Groucho)

No nudity, some profanity. Because of Frances, there may be a little chick flick potential. Enjoy this movie for the mood and the music rather than for anything deeper.

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