CROSSROADS (Walter Hill's Blues film, NOT Britney Spears' self-indulgent 2002 fluff) is a terrific introduction to a uniquely American 'sound', with a remarkable cast and southern 'atmosphere'. It has always astonished me that the film was not a hit when released, in 1986, but it's status as a cult classic is certainly well-deserved, with subsequent films like the Coens' O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? 'borrowing' the Robert Johnson subplot and many of the visual elements. Perhaps the film, with it's magnificent Ry Cooder score, was just too far ahead of it's time, a strange criticism to apply to a Blues movie!
The tale involves young Long Island guitar prodigy Eugene 'Lightning Boy' Martone (Ralph Macchio), a rebel at the Julliard School with his passion for the Blues ("Primitive music," one professor sneers), who is on a quest to recover legendary guitarist Robert Johnson's fabled "30th Song" of 1938. His research leads him to a New York nursing home, where fabled harmonica player Willie Brown (the late actor/singer/songwriter Joe Seneca) is confined. Promising to 'give' the song to the youngster if he can be "busted out" and returned to his Mississippi home, the pair are soon on a cross-country trip, with Martone learning about discrimination, the 'darker' side of Man, and love's loss (through a brief encounter with Jami Gertz, who was never lovelier), providing him with the core of sadness Brown says is essential to truly play the Blues.
The climax of the film is legendary; arriving home, Brown, who had 'sold his soul' to the Devil at the 'Crossroads' as a young man (just as his friend, Johnson, had), attempts to get 'Scratch' (skeletal Robert Judd) to tear up the contract. The Devil informs him that he will, only if Martone can defeat his Champion in a 'Guitar Duel'. If the youngster loses, his soul, as well as Brown's, will be lost, forever. Martone rashly agrees ("I don't believe any of this crap anyway!"), and he and Brown find themselves in a church converted into a dance hall, with demons and lost souls cavorting to the rock strains of insanely talented Jack Butler (Frank Zappa guitarist/composer Steve Vai). With only his love of the Blues, Julliard training, and Brown's 'ju-ju' to aid him, the humbled Martone must play for far more than his life, in a guitar 'Duel' with the rocker (both parts were actually performed by the astonishingly gifted Vai) that is so fabulous that it is amazing that it was NOT included in the soundtrack album!
Walter Hill was no stranger to music-themed fantasies (he also directed another 'ahead of it's time' cult film, STREETS OF FIRE), and with CROSSROADS he took a simple storyline, and turned it into an unforgettable musical experience.