Cult Movie Essentials

Crossroads (1986)

Crossroads is a feature film inspired by the legend of blues musician Robert Johnson. It stars Ralph Macchio, Joe Seneca and Jami Gertz, the film was written by John Fusco and directed by Walter Hill and features an original score featuring Ry Cooder and Steve Vai on the soundtrack’s guitar, and harmonica by Sonny Terry.

Fusco spent his early years as a traveling blues musician prior to attending New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts where he wrote Crossroads as a masterclass assignment under screenwriting giants Waldo Salt and Ring Lardner, Jr.. The student screenplay won first place in the national FOCUS Awards (Films of College and University Students) and sold to Columbia Pictures while Fusco was still a student!

In the film we meet Eugene Martone (Macchio), a classical guitar student at the Juilliard School for Performing Arts in New York City who has an obsession for the blues, especially the famed Robert Johnson. Most intriguing are the legends surrounding exactly how Johnson became so talented most notably the one claiming he “sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads” along with a supposed lost song that Johnson never recorded.

Eugene meets blues musician Willie Brown in an old folks prison and plays him some blues on his guitar. Willie finally admits that he actually is Blind Dog Fulton, bandmate of Robert Johnson. Willie then says he knows the missing Robert Johnson tune in question but refuses to give it to Eugene unless the boy breaks him out of the facility and gets him to Mississippi, where he has unfinished business to settle. Eugene refuses, and Willie says he thought Eugene might be a “Lightnin’ Boy” but he’s just a “chicken ass”. Eugene reluctantly agrees to help, and they head to Memphis, Tennessee.

Willie tells Eugene how he came to be in prison which ultimately led to his being in the hospital. Upon reaching Memphis, Eugene realizes that Willie has misled him, saying he had more money than he actually has. With only $40 to their name they end up “hoboing” from Memphis to rural Mississippi. “Lightnin’ Boy” becomes Eugene’s blues name.

Shortly after arriving in Mississippi, Willie and Eugene see a train and Willie mimics the train on his harmonica, Eugene tries to do the same on his guitar but fails causing Willie to tell him that he’s never going to get Johnson’s lost song if he can’t make “the Train talk”. Eugene jokingly suggests to Willie that he will just do what Willie did and “sell his soul to the Devil at the crossroads”, causing Willie to slap him angrily telling him to never say that again.

 

As the movie continues their journey eventually leads to the crossroads and a showdown with the devil’s guitar player Jack Butler (Steve Vai).

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