17-year-old guitar prodigy Eugene Martone (Ralph Macchio, in his follow-up to The Karate Kid) studies classical guitar at Juilliard School for Performing Arts, but is fascinated by the Delta Blues, particularly Robert Johnson, the mysterious bluesman who as myth would have it, went down to a Mississippi crossroads and sold his soul to the devil to play the guitar.
Eugene seeks out the master’s friend, Blind Dog Fulton (the late Joe Seneca), known also as 「Smokehouse Brown」, known also as Willie Brown, who Eugene believes is interned at an old folks』 home in New York. Eugene takes a job as a janitor just to see the old man, hoping Brown will teach him a fabled 「30th song」 Johnson was to have written but never recorded.
Willie agrees to teach Eugene the lost song if he’ll break him out and take him back to Mississippi. Forced to go hobo due to lack of money, Eugene begins to doubt Willie is who he says he is, until they reach the crossroads and meet old Scratch himself (Robert Judd), whom Willie sold his soul to years ago. Eugene doesn’t believe it, and agrees to buy back Willie’s soul by participating in a 「head-cutting」 duel with the devil’s own guitar player (Steve Vai).
Directed with studied restraint by Walter Hill and written by John Fusco, Crossroads was not a box office success, and considering how quickly Macchio’s film career disappeared, is not in rotation on cable now. Its primary appeal is probably to musicians or blues enthusiasts, not audiences looking for a mass entertainment.
While probably a love it or leave it proposition, I loved it. This movie features the best sustained sequences of blues music ever put in a narrative film. Ry Cooder produced the soundtrack and played the slide parts in the climactic duel, while Steve Vai performed both his character’s part and Eugene’s. Macchio was coached by Arlen Roth, and while he didn’t play the guitar, the actor’s bends, slides and finger movements looked believable to me.
If there’s any fault with the casting, it’s that Macchio never looked comfortable as any kind of a romantic lead. Jami Gertz - who pops up as a 15-year-old hitchhiker - looks like she could break him in two and toss him in a ditch. Their hasty road relationship is the weakest thing going here. That said, Macchio sells all his guitar work, and is very believable playing a Juilliard prodigy whose life experience consists of studying.
Joe Seneca only became known to film audiences in the last ten years of his career, but is brilliant busting Macchio’s balls, blowin』 the harp or taking care of 「business」 as a well traveled hobo who knows how to survive outdoors. He gets all the best dialogue. When Eugene says 「Here’s something from the Delta」 and plays a blues riff he’s proud of, Willie dead pans, 「Sounds like bird shit.」
Some have complained about Steve Vai’s casting, but if you’d called up a weathered bluesman like Bo Diddley or Stevie Ray Vaughan to duel against Ralph Macchio, the scripted outcome would have been laughable. With his carnival of heavy metal guitar chords and goofy stretch leather pants, Vai may be a bit over the top, but is the right adversary for the movie.
Fusco’s script is solid, though on the conventional side. None of the business on the road works very well; Jami Gertz’s character seems forced into this against her will. But Joe Seneca, Cooder & Vai’s epic performance work, and the decision to devote an entire movie to the legend of the blues more than makes up for all of that.