- Year: 1986
- Director: Walter Hill
- Starring: Ralph Macchio, Joe Seneca, Jami Gertz
The classic Faustian legend has found its way into Americana over and over again, but the most famous is probably through blues music. The rumor of a musician selling his soul to the Devil for his talent has been attributed to many musicians from blues godfather Tommy Johnson to Bob Dylan of all people. The most famous, though, is Robert Johnson.
Robert Johnson recorded a mere 29 songs in his time, but he is one of the most influential guitarists of all time, with his songs being covered by Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, and many, many others. His songs also seem to support the devil myth, with “Hellhound on My Trail” and “Me and the Devil Blues” being some of the darkest. To be fair, selling your soul to the Devil was probably metaphorical for switching from sacred music to secular, but that doesn’t stop people from believing the myth. I’ll try not to ramble about Robert Johnson too much, but his story is really a fascinating one, helped along by the mysterious persona he built for himself in his short life.
Robert Johnson’s song “Cross Road Blues” mentions his friend Willie Brown, who is the focus of this film. Our lead character Ralph Macchio (played by Ralph Macchio) is an adept guitarist at Julliard…so he’s named Eugene Martone, but he’s just playing Ralph Macchio. He wants to be great at something, so he meets an old master who teaches him how to do it his way, and at the end he wins a competition in his field.
So Ralph discovers that there’s a Willie Brown (Joe Seneca) living at a local nursing home/prison who might be the Willie Brown that Robert Johnson knew. Ralph gets a job there, but Willie is abrasive at first, not wanting to talk about music. After a while though, they get to talking about Robert Johnson, and Willie promises Ralph the lost 30th song that Robert recorded if he breaks him out and takes him to Mississippi.
Willie too made a Faustian deal in the past, at a crossroads in Mississippi. He met the Devil’s assistant (Joe Morton) there, who told him to come back every Saturday night for lessons. It’s kind of weird that he still has to work at it, instead of the usual instant gratification that comes from these deals. Couldn’t he have just practiced on his own?
Anyway, so we’ve got a promising setup, seeped in delta blues legend. Surely we’re going to have a compelling story involving these characters… Nope, it’s just a road movie. It’s just Ralph and Willie getting into various situations during their trip to Mississippi. They get their money stolen, they sleep out in barns, they play music at bars, they get kicked out of bars. They start out on rough terms with each other, but grow to like each other.
Along the way, they meet a teenage runaway named Frances (Jami Gertz). Since she and Ralph Macchio are the male and female leads, they get together despite having no chemistry. They are constantly at odds and seem to not like each other at all, but then all of a sudden they sleep together.
Frances tries to convince Ralph that Willie is not the real Willie Brown and that he just wanted someone to break him out. Ok, whatever, this could be a plot point, albeit a cliched one, if Willie wasn’t completely standoffish at first. If Willie was just looking for a way out, why did he act like a right jerk to Ralph in the beginning? But no, the movie tries to hang it over our heads that maybe this isn’t the real Willie Brown.
The only notable thing that happens along the way is that Frances leaves. Okay, so we were expecting that, but she doesn’t return. She just leaves, and Willie tells Ralph that now he can understand the blues. I kept expecting her to just magically turn up at the end, but she doesn’t. It’s not anything groundbreaking, but even something slightly unique in this bland road trip was nice.
So they get to Mississippi, and Willie reveals that there is no 30th Robert Johnson song (shocker) and that he intends to summon the Devil to cancel his decades old deal. After the huge waste of time the road trip was, we’re finally getting the meat of the story. He summons the Devil in the daytime.
Look, I’m trying to get somewhat invested in this film, but the daytime? REALLY? Anyway, the Devil’s assistant drives up and taunts him again. I actually like how we only see his assistant for a while, because it’s good build up to the actual Devil. Joe Morton kind of plays him as this smug conman, and he’s enjoyable. Then, Scratch himself approaches, played by Robert Judd.
And here we have the best part of the movie. He only speaks in this one scene, but he steals the whole thing. Just look at his evil grin. He’s the perfect Devil for this kind of story, so smug and completely in control. I just wish his scenes could have been a bit longer. I’m fine with the dramatic buildup, but give us more.
As this movie has shown before, all original things must come to an end, so then it just turns into “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Ralph Macchio suggests a guitar duel, but since Willie only learned harmonica, that’s out of the question. Ralph then offers to play and puts his own soul on the line, and they’re transported to a bar where the Devil’s guitarist (Steve Vai) plays.
So the two play some licks back and forth, and when it seems to be a draw, Ralph throws in some of the classical guitar he’s been practicing and wins. The Devil tears up the contract without a fight or even a word, and Willie and Ralph plan the future of their music.
What is there to say about Crossroads? It takes the fascinating legend of Robert Johnson and does nothing with it. By the time we get to the titular crossroads, we’ve lost all interest, and it’s a fairly short movie. The music is by the aforementioned Steve Vai and the great Ry Cooder, and any time it breaks away from the story to play some music is at least a nice diversion. Ry Cooder claims that the movie “went down the tubes,” and I am curious as to what it could have been. There must have been something interesting in the original draft, but it’s almost entirely lost here. Let’s check out the final score.
Story (7/20 Points)
Every. Single. Road Trip. Cliche.
Faust (9/20 Points)
I mean, no one plays Ralph Macchio like Ralph Macchio, but his character is just annoying here. I guess the real Faust is Willie Brown, and Joe Seneca is fine, but his entire arc is predictable.
Devil (15/20 Points)
Both Joe Morton as Scratch’s assistant and Robert Judd as Scratch himself are great in their confidence and sliminess, but they’re both very underused.
Supporting Cast (5/20 Points)
There is not one supporting character who stands out. Jami Gertz’s Frances is another cliched character with nothing unique about her at all, and all of the people they meet along the way are boring.
Experience (9/20 Points)
The blues music is nice, but in a movie about Robert Johnson himself? They could have done more.
FINAL SCORE: 45%
It’s a harmless film, but it’s mostly just a waste of an hour and a half. Robert Judd’s Devil is the best part, but he only has two short scenes, and the second is him just watching the guitar duel and ripping up the contract. If you want to watch a road movie with some blues music thrown in, you might like it, but I can’t really recommend it for any other reason.
Next week, we go from Mississippi to Louisiana with 1987’s Angel Heart.