Southern Movie 57: “Crossroads” (1986)

Fresh off his success in 1984’s The Karate Kid, Ralph Macchio played a young guitarist named Eugene Martone in the 1980s blues-themed movie Crossroads. Martone studies at New York’s Julliard School but his love for the blues supersedes his interest in classical studies. That focus leads him to track down Willie Brown, the last man alive who might know Robert Johnson’s “lost song.” (Those familiar with blues history will know about Johnson’s recordings in 1936 and ’37, but let’s be honest: this movie wasn’t made for the blues crowd.) Directed by Walter Hill, who also directed 1981’s Southern Comfort, this film is very ’80s and somewhat similar to Karate Kid, playing heavily on a young underdog’s unlikely success that comes in part from lessons taught by an older mentor.

Crossroads opens in sepia tones as we see a black man in a suit carrying an acoustic guitar. He walks along a gravelly dirt road toward an intersection by an old dead tree. A blues piano plays in the background as the man looks down one road then down another. Next, we see him notice someone who has apparently arrived without warning, and he regards the person, who we don’t see, skeptically. We understand that this is Robert Johnson’s infamous experience at the crossroads, the deal made famous by the song.

Next, we see the same man walking the narrow halls of what looks like a hotel. He knocks on a door, a white man opens it without a word, and after removing his hat, Johnson sits down to record “Crossroad Blues.” With that basis laid, the song segues into Eugene’s dorm room in modern times. The walls are covered in blues imagery, and the tables are littered with records and magazines. The young student has his beat-up acoustic and is trying to play along with a cassette-tape recording.

We learn soon that Eugene is more than a boy who likes music when we see him scrolling through microfilm of old newspapers, reading about Willie Brown, whose name appears in the song. His studious expression tells that he has found something, then we see him crossing the street to a prison-nursing home in the city. Inside, he has a pass to come in, shows it to a gruff orderly, then proceeds to the nurse’s station where he announces that he is there to see Willie Brown (Joe Seneca). The nurse goes down the hall into a room and returns quickly, telling Eugene that Willie doesn’t know him. Eugene’s insistence and his attempts to explain himself only illicit the retort that Willie doesn’t want to see anyone at all.

Dejected, Eugene starts to leave but on his way out sees a sign announcing a janitorial job that needs to be filled. When the scene shifts to Eugene wearing coveralls and mopping the hall, we know he has found his in-road. A woman waddles by and tells him to empty her trash can, but he just keeps mopping, eventually finding his way into Willie Brown’s room. Willie is sitting in a wheelchair and playing his harmonica. He stops and asks, “What you want, Mr. Janitor Man? I ain’t made no mess.” Eugene comes in, trying to be friendly, but he has an agenda, which he quickly reveals. Spouting tidbits of blues history that he has read in books, Willie has an indignant answer for every aspect. Eugene pushes hard: he must be the Willie Brown from the song, he must be the man whose alias was Blind Dog Fulton. Willie brushes him off then shuts him down, but we see from Willie’s expression after Eugene leaves that there must be something to Eugene’s notion.

In the next series of scenes, we get to see Eugene’s dilemma a bit better. First, he is in a classroom with a group of students and plays his classical piece for a teacher who is evaluating him. At the end of his classical piece, he adds a little blues turnaround and is told by his instructor that the flourish was disrespectful. Back at the nursing home, he runs into Willie again, and the elder man asks why he was asking those questions. Eugene tells him that he is looking for Robert Johnson’s lost song, because he is a bluesman. Willie laughs out loud and mocks him until a nurse comes to roll him away. Back at Julliard, Eugene is then in his professor’s office, where he is being told that his devotion to non-classical music is hampering his development in classical studies. Eugene wants to know whether he can do both. The professor tells him no. This, we now know, is not so much a story about the blues but about a young man whose inner struggle revolves around what he is versus what he wants to be.

When Eugene sees Willie again, the old timer is drawing a picture of the crossroads with crayons. Eugene comes in to empty the trash, and Willie mocks hims some more without really looking up. Eugene’s consternation is obvious, and he asks Willie one more time whether he’s Blind Dog Fulton. Nope is the reply. So Eugene pulls his trump card: a photograph of a much younger Willie Brown, standing among a group of musicians at a bar— same round face, same glasses, same smile.

This item leads Willie to smile and then flashback to the time when he made his deal with the Devil at the crossroads. Unlike the movie’s opening scene, this time we see a befuddled-looking young man in overalls (not a suit) who is approached by a man in a car. The smooth-talking, arrogant driver gives the young Willie a contract, which he signs with his mouth hanging open. Where Robert Johnson seemed like he knew what he was doing, young Willie does not.

Once we’re back in the present day, we do not return to that particular scene of Willie being confronted, but later. Eugene storms into the break room with his guitar, plays a few licks, then follows Willie down the hall proclaiming that he plays just like Son House. Willie is not impressed, knowing that the blues is about more than technique. Eugene also makes the absurd suggestions that Willie could teach him the song and that they could record it in the hospital. But now, twenty minutes in, we are about to the see the crux, that moment when Eugene must make a choice. Willie stops his wheelchair and whispers, “Get me outta here.” Willie, who has nothing to lose, proposes a bargain: break him out and get him back to Mississippi, and he will teach Eugene the song. However, Eugene is flabbergasted and says to the old man, who is incarcerated, “What’re you trying to do, get me arrested?” In Willie’s room, the two argue a bit, and Willie reveals that he can walk and that he has this plan. With a stashed money roll and Eugene’s help, he can get out of that inner-city hospital and back to his home down South. The change comes when a grimacing Eugene reluctantly agrees. Be ready at 5:00 AM tomorrow, he tells Willie.

The next morning, Eugene sneaks quietly into the nursing home and finds Willie dressed in a suit and carrying a suitcase— not exactly low-key sneaking out clothes. On their way out, that gruff orderly from earlier in the movie chases them, but Eugene manages to lock the door and get Willie to a waiting cab. The two fugitives arrive at the bus station, and Eugene asks for the money roll that Willie showed him the night before. Willie refuses, saying that it’s unwise to pull money out in public. Go get us tickets to Memphis, he says, and I’ll pick it up from there. At this point, Eugene has two good reasons to be wary: Willie claims to know the song but won’t share it and claims to have money but won’t use it. (What follows the bus station scene, unfortunately, doesn’t make much sense. They’ve broken out at 5:00 AM, went straight to the bus station, but are leaving town at night. For that to be right, the escaped inmate and his helper would have had to sit in the bus station all day long, until the sun went down . . . Wouldn’t they have gotten caught?)

On the bus heading south, Eugene and Willie talk in the dark. Eugene shares his book learning, and Willie tells him what really happened. He was there for everything and had made a deal with the Devil. Now, it is nearing time to pay up, and all he could do is sit in an “old folks’ cage” after shooting a fellow musician who double-crossed him over money.

In Memphis, the two unload with the intention of changing buses. Eugene asks for the money, but Willie is slow to give it . . . until Eugene insists. It turns out that money roll was only two $20 bills wrapped around newspaper clippings. They won’t be able to get any bus tickets with that little money. Eugene is learning the hard way about life on the road. Willie informs him that they’ll be walking the rest of the way. In trying to use an old man, Eugene finds out that he has been used himself. “Welcome to Bluesville, son,” Willie tells him.

Next we see the pair, they’re hanging their feet off the back of an old pickup full of chickens. They get dropped off right in front of a Highway 61 sign, and Willie changes his necktie. Meanwhile, Eugene is pouting about their circumstances. As they walk on up a two-lane road, a train comes. Willie smiles and pulls out his harmonica to play like the train. Eugene tries to mimic it on the guitar, behaving as though he’s never heard of such. Strange that a young man who has read so much blues history seems not to know about something to elemental as “making the train talk.” Because he’s a greenhorn, though, he disappoints Willie when he tries. In an effort to fend off the criticism then, Eugene makes a smart remarks about how he’ll just make a deal with the Devil, and Willie slaps him across the face.

Later that day, in a little store, the tension is palpable. Willie is frustrated with Eugene, and Eugene is fed up with what he has gotten himself into. The boy only wanted a song and to be famous for playing it. What he got was an immersive experience in what he’d been reading about. Willie finally lets out that he has his own reasons for being down in Mississippi, which are none of Eugene’s business. He also tells the novice that he’s a fool for playing on a squeaky old acoustic guitar, trying to mimic his heroes. “Muddy Waters invented ‘lectricity,” he says.

Which carries them into the pawn shop, where Eugene is looking at a Telecaster. Two things don’t make sense here: where they got money, since they couldn’t afford two bus tickets, and why a black man’s pawn shop has so much Confederate symbolism in it— but okay, we’ll go with it. The older black man behind the counter talks up the guitar and a portable Pig Nose amp to go with it. Eugene likes the new set up, so Willie takes the man aside to speak with him about the price. Offering Eugene’s watch and Lord knows what else, he gets Eugene electrified.

Nearing the halfway point in the story, Willie and Eugene are running down a dirt road in the pouring rain and find an abandoned house where they take shelter. Inside is a pretty young white girl changing clothes. She pulls a knife on them, telling them to leave, but Willie takes the knife from her. Some tense getting-to-know-you ensues, and we learn that the girl – Frances (Jami Gertz) – is a runaway heading to LA to take a “dancing gig.” Willie tries to mythologize their own roots, saying that Eugene broke him out of prison, but Eugene ruins it by clarifying that it was a nursing home. Frances is brash and streetwise and wants nothing to do with our heroes. But Willie has different ideas, since her pretty face is going to attract more rides than Eugene’s thumb.

Frances’ attractiveness does draw them a ride on that muddy dirt road, and they arrive at a small-town bar that has a motel across the parking lot. Willie and Eugene play to a small crowd outside, but they get run off when the shady owner arrives in his convertible Cadillac. The two musicians then go hide behind a dumpster with their tips and see Frances going into one of the motel rooms with shady Cadillac man. Inside, the proprietor explains that he’ll be getting one for free, to test her out, and then she’ll be able to sell herself out of the room all night long. He goes into the shower then, and she begins to undress when Willie and Eugene come to the rescue. They urge her to leave with them, and with a pistol that Willie produces out of nowhere, they rob the shady redneck pimp of his money and the keys to his car. Eugene is very disturbed by the gun, and Willie shares that he bought it at the pawn shop.

Now, our duo is a trio. Despite the fact that they are regularly committing felonies, we’re pulling for them. After the robbery, they’re riding in style, at least until they go to a junkyard and sell the Cadillac. Back on foot again, they make their way into a barn to stay the night— a particularly unwise move since they cross a freshly plowed field to get there. But this nighttime scene allows for another complication in the plot when Eugene and Frances go up into the hayloft together.

Our heroes are woken up by flashlights, and local sheriff’s deputies show up to expurgate the trespassers. Unlike the common trope that almost always has Southern deputies to be white and corrupt, the deputies this time are black— but equally corrupt. While arresting Willie, Eugene, and Frances, one of them takes the money out of Frances’ bag. The daylight then finds them waiting by a bridge, in the back seat of the deputies’ car, when the sheriff, who is also black, arrives. He informs them that he’s in a good mood and will let them go. They can cross the bridge and be in another county, where they won’t be his problem anymore. But Frances objects and wants her money back. The deputy who took it remains silent when accused, and the sheriff then tells her that he can help her out: he can put her in the county farm while she presses charges and waits on the deputy’s court date. Willie sees the wisdom in moving on, making a cutting remark about corruption as they begin to walk.

After another narrow escape, they arrive at a small hotel and book a couple rooms. Willie asks the older black woman behind the desk whether she’s seen the crossroads in his crayon drawing. She says no, but tells that the town of Weaver (or maybe Weevil) is about two miles down the road. Willie knows the town, which turns out to be very small with a dirt Main Street. Of course, there is a white barroom on one side and a black juke joint directly across. This scene is one of few in the film that ties itself directly to race. Outside in the streets, Willie gives them instructions to go into the white barroom and “bring home the big eagle.” Grifter that she is, Frances knows what to do, but Eugene is hesitant, so Willie gives him the gun for protection. Here, at about the two-thirds mark in the movie, Eugene finally calls bullshit on Willie, reminding him that everywhere they go, no one has ever heard of Fulton’s Point, Willie’s supposed homeplace. Willie bites his lip but sends them on, remarking to Frances they should stay on their side of the road.

Inside the crowded barroom, Frances stalks the room while Eugene hangs back. A messy-looking middle-aged man in a plaid sports coat quickly picks up on her, asking her to dance. Frances obliges with a smile, but in a moment, he realizes that she has stolen his wallet. Called out in front of everyone and knowing that she is guilty of the theft, she has no choice but to shout that her friend has a gun. Eugene is in deeper than he should be and shows off the pistol, clearly knowing that he won’t use it. To resolve the situation, the old surly bartender then brandishes a shotgun, orders Eugene to relinquish the pistol, which he does, then tells them to get out— and to grow up. With no other choices, they leave and go into the black juke joint across the street. Big mistake. The whole place stops, and everyone moves toward them. Eugene and Frances are confronted by black people wanting to know why they’ve come in there. They just want to find their friend Willie, that’s all. And out of nowhere, a harmonica breaks the near silence— it’s Willie, saving the day, calling the crowd to let them through to the stage. However, once Eugene gets to the stage, Willie pulls him aside, calls him a “dumb shit,” and threatens that he’d better play good or they’re all in trouble. Of course, they do, and the whole place erupts.

Back at the hotel, Eugene feels like he has finally made it. He has survived some hardship and played blues in a juke joint. But a drunk Willie won’t let him fly high. An argument ensues between the two, with Frances taking Eugene’s side. Willie returns to his room, with nothing resolved, and has a dream about his deal with the Devil. Lest we forget, in paying attention to Eugene’s journey, that Willie is on a journey, too.

In the morning, Frances packs up her suitcase and leaves Eugene without saying goodbye. Willie is awake, though, and speaks to her before she leaves. Frances has no interest in following them around, she has her own dreams to chase, and Willie gives her a few bucks for the road. Last we see Frances, she is walking up a rural highway at sunrise.

When Eugene wakes up and finds that Frances is gone, that’s not the only problem he has to face. After learning that she snuck out on him, Eugene walks out in the rain and stares off in the distance sadly. Returning inside, Willie knows his pain and, during their talk about the blues, lets out the truth: there is no lost song. Willie lied to Eugene to get out of that nursing home. A stunned Eugene walks over, picks up his guitar, and starts to play, while Willie ruminates out loud. Eugene has now learned what it means to play the blues.

With Crossroads winding down, almost everything has been addressed . . . except Willie’s deal. In town, they pull up in a cab at a house, where Willie asks for a woman who has not been mentioned so far. The young black woman at the door tells her that she’s dead. This was a house of prostitution long ago, but it’s just a quiet home now. He asks the young woman about his crayon crossroads. That’s where they have to go.

At the crossroads, Eugene is skeptical that any such magic will happen, but soon a sports car races toward them, and the same brash man from Willie’s sepia-toned deal gets out. He has not changed nor aged. Willie wants to see Legba, but the wily man says that he goes by Scratch now. A surlier-than-ever Willie says to stop playing games, he needs to see him. And suddenly the Devil appears. He is wearing an old-style black suit and hat, and has a broad smile. He is friendly to Willie, but Willie is all business. Both men ignore Eugene, who is baffled. The deal is off, proclaims Willie, but the Devil responds that it doesn’t work that way. Willie tries to offer him money, to no avail, and the Devil suggests coyly that Eugene’s soul might make him change his mind. Willie says no, but Eugene laughs it off, saying, “I don’t believe in any of this shit anyway.”

What must happen is: Eugene will “cut heads” with the Devil’s man named Jack Butler, played by ’80s guitar hero Steve Vai. If Butler wins, then both Willie and Eugene are under contract. If Eugene wins, then Willie is free. Magically, they are all transported to a big juke joint, and there on the stage is the man Eugene must outplay. He is long-haired and wearing spandex, a stark contrast to Eugene’s humbler clothes. The duel begins, with Butler’s crazy antics and wild solos, and Eugene responds with his old school blues. After a short back-and forth, it appears that Jack Butler will win. The crowd cheers, the Devil laughs, and Willie hangs his head. Until Eugene breaks in with his classical music, flying up and down the guitar’s neck as everyone slowly realizes that he is not defeated after all. When he is done, Jack Butler can’t respond, the wild man can’t play the carefully measured music. Finally, our underdog comes out on top by relying on the very thing he thought he wanted to discard. Willie’s contract gets torn up, and Eugene has gained the experience he wanted.

Back on the road, Eugene is rambling about their new musical partnership and his plans, but Willie tells him that they must part ways. We already understood that they were at different points in their lives, and soon  – though we won’t be there to see it – their paths must diverge. The end.

Crossroads leaves the viewer with some very reasonable questions to ask. Any person would wonder: after Eugene defeats the evil guitar player, what will happen next? Certainly, Willie was reported as an escapee and Eugene as his accomplice, and when the two emerge with their music, the law will easily swoop in. Put simply, Willie might not be going to hell, but Eugene is going to jail, where he will learn some real blues. At least in The Karate Kid, we could see Daniel going back to high school on Monday and enjoying his triumph. Here, that’s not the case.

Back in 1986, the late Roger Ebert saw this movie a lot like I do now:

It borrows, obviously, from Macchio’s movie, “The Karate Kid” (1984), which also was the story of a young man’s apprenticeship with an older master. It also borrows from the countless movies in which everything depends on who wins the big fight, match, game or duel in the last scene.

But the question for me, ultimately, is: what does it say about the South?

Crossroads is built on a common, generally white half-understanding of the blues, but it helps itself slightly by having Eugene “Lightning Boy” Martone to be the embodiment of that very person. If all a white person in the 1980s knew about the blues was Robert Johnson, slide and harmonica, Mississippi, and Highway 61, this movie would be very digestible. And at the same time, it would show that person to himself, as he watched Eugene try too hard, rely on trite symbolism, and make claims he shouldn’t be making as he sets about committing serious acts of cultural appropriation. After all, Eugene wants the lost song to make himself famous, and arrogantly expects Willie to share it with him for that reason. My personal favorite part of Eugene’s comeuppance comes in the pawn shop when Eugene dons a pork pie hat and says, “Look, Willie, I’m a bluesman,” to which Willie replies, “Yeah, you need a lot more than that hat.” Our protagonist is the case study in the kid who thinks that, if he wears the clothes and plays the tunes, then he must be the real thing. Uh . . . no.

Thankfully, the other character we see throughout the film is Willie Brown, played by Joe Seneca. This character speaks for the South and for the blues, and he does it regularly and with authority, correcting Eugene whenever he gets the chance. What is interesting is that this Willie Brown makes little mention of race, reinforcing my idea that this film was made to be easily digestible for 1980s white people. There are inferences to be made from his actions, like when he admonishes the young white couple not to come on the black side of the road and into the black club. He often scolds Eugene for being naive and childish, but less often for being white and arrogant.

If I had to guess, the idea for Crossroads probably sprung from a mainstream interest in the blues in the 1980s. After the heyday of blues-rock in the 1970s, Eric Clapton and a few others like him had dropped the heaviness of rock music (as in Cream’s 1968 version of “Crossroads”) and followed a somewhat more purist path. As a teenager, I remember the compilation tapes, like the ones Eugene listens to, being cheap and often sold at gas stations. By the 1980s, there was a better understanding of how badly black blues musicians had been exploited, and many of the great mid-century folks were elderly or dying. (Muddy Waters died in 1983.) I would assume that feelings of guilt and a twinge of nostalgia each played a part in creating the film. But if we wanted mainstream Americans to understand the blues, what it was, what it involved, this movie – about a white kid who wants to exploit an old bluesman – wasn’t the way to achieve that. The way I see it: the movie Crossroads is about living the blues in the same way that the TV show Full House was about living in a nontraditional family.

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