Looking up the details for this film on IMDb, I couldn’t help but notice that there are more than one film titled Crossroads that concern musicians. The other is a 2002 film featuring Britney Spears. It’s unlikely I shall ever cover that film here; even the Morbid Curiosity Files have limits.
This 1986 film was directed by Walter Hill, and is built largely around the legend of blues man Robert Johnson, and his mythical “deal with the devil” to learn the blues. Ralph Macchio, in between Karate Kid movies, plays Eugene Martone, a 17-year-old guitar prodigy who is studying at Juilliard but has become fascinated with the blues and with Robert Johnson in particular. Wanting to know the secret of Johnson’s 30th song (Robert Johnson famously recorded only 29 songs before his early death), he tracks down a man who he believes was Johnson’s friend and co-musician, Willie Brown, also known as “Blind Dog” Fulton (Joe Seneca).
His teacher at Juilliard tells him he can’t serve two masters, and should give up the blues, showing he’s never dealt with a teenager before.
Eugene finds Willie at a minimum-security state prison hospital, where he’s serving time for killing a man (arguably in self defense as the movie reveals). Initially Willie wants nothing to do with this New York City white boy who thinks he’s a blues man. But after Eugene plays for him, Willie decides to make him a deal. They each have something the other wants. Eugene wants that 30th song, and the secrets to becoming a great blues musician. And Willie… he wants out. Out of the prison hospital, out of New York, and out of his own deal with the devil made when he was young. Dubbing Eugene “Lightning Boy”, he talks him into breaking him out of hospital, and the two are soon hobo-ing their way to Mississippi, to the crossroads where it all began. Along the way, they pick up a third hitchhiker, a young girl named Frances (Jami Gertz) who is trying to make her way to L.A. to become a dancer. The unlikely trio make their way down to Willie Brown’s old home with a few run-ins with the law, run-ins with the locals, and run-ins with each other.
He’s thousands of miles from home, in trouble with the law, and now he starts questioning the wisdom of his actions?
It’s difficult to watch Ralph Macchio without thinking of Daniel LaRusso. Macchio played the character for three Karate Kid movies, and it was easily his most notable role — arguably his only notable role. And “Lightning Boy” Martone has a lot in common with the Karate Kid. Both think they know a lot more than they do, both largely force themselves upon their mentors, and both are reluctant to actually heed the advice that they signed up to receive. Heck, both films even end with a climactic face off against a designated antagonist — in this case, Steve Vai as the Devil’s hand-picked blues guitarist. In a lot of ways, if you took the “karate” out of The Karate Kid and put in “blues”, you’d wind up with something looking a lot like Crossroads. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Macchio may be typecast, but it’s a type he plays well. He’s never even slightly unbelievable as this wide-eyed kid who isn’t as world-wise as he thinks, who gets flustered and frustrated at the slightest things, and acts first, thinks later. His guitar playing is obviously fake in a few scenes, though he did learn the fingering (Steve Vai and Allen Roth provide most of the actual music), but it’s close enough that it doesn’t distract over much from the movie. It helps that although it’s a film built around blues music, the characters are more important than the music itself.
Jami Gertz isn’t given a lot to do as Frances; she’s mostly there to give Eugene a love interest and another person to talk to besides Willie. Still, she does the most she can with her limited role, creating a character who is even more of a hot-head than Eugene and making the dialogue entertaining to watch. Joe Seneca is perfect as the blues musician Willie Brown; he looks weathered and worn, and his mannerisms of speech are simply fun to listen to. He balances well off his young co-stars, and strikes such a perfect balance between a doddering old fool, a wise old man, a crafty con man and a veteran blues musician that the audience is kept wondering which is the truth as much as “Lightning Boy” is. And though they are small roles, the parts of Old Scratch and his assistant (Robert Judd and Joe Morton) can’t be overlooked. Besides being important to the overall narrative, they are also well acted, with each having just enough charm to almost gloss over the sense of malice lurking underneath their smiles.
Very emphatically not a man to be making a deal with.
Crossroads may be something of an obscure film among the many staples of the 1980s. Certainly there are more people who have seen even the third Karate Kid film than Crossroads. But it’s a film that shouldn’t be overlooked. This is an entertaining character drama with some good music interspersed and characters that are interesting and fun to watch. It’s a movie that’s worth checking out.