Crossroads (1986 film)

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Theatrical release poster
Directed by Walter Hill
Produced by Mark Carliner (producer)
Mae Woods (associate producer)
Tim Zinnemann (executive producer)
Written by John Fusco
Starring Ralph Macchio
Joe Seneca
Jami Gertz
Joe Morton
Steve Vai
Music by Ry Cooder
Steve Vai
Cinematography John Bailey
Edited by Freeman A. Davies
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release dates March 14, 1986 (1986-03-14)
Running time 96 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $5,839,000 (United States)

Crossroads is a 1986 musical drama film starring Ralph Macchio, Joe Seneca and Jami Gertz, inspired by the legend of blues musician Robert Johnson. The film was written by John Fusco and directed by Walter Hill and featured an original score featuring Ry Cooder and Steve Vai on the soundtrack's guitar, and harmonica by Sonny Terry. Vai also appears in the film as the devil's guitar player in the climactic guitar duel.

Fusco was a traveling blues musician prior to attending NYU's Tisch School of the Arts where he wrote "Crossroads" as a masterclass assignment under screenwriting legends 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.


Eugene Martone (Macchio) has a fascination for the blues while he studies classical guitar at the Juilliard School for Performing Arts in New York City. Researching blues and guitar music brings famed Robert Johnson's mythically creative acclaim to his attention; especially 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", as well as a famed "missing song" that was lost, supposedly evermore, to the world.

In his quest to find this song, he discovers old newspaper archive clippings revealing that Johnson's longtime friend, musician Willie "Blind Dog Fulton Smoke House" Brown, is alive and incarcerated in a nearby minimum security hospital. Eugene goes to see him. After Willie denies several times that he is that Willie Brown, he finally admits his identity after hearing Eugene play some blues (though Willie notes that Eugene "plays with no soul"). 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 agrees and they head south, but the boy soon realizes that Willie is constantly running minor scams such as claiming that he has more money than he actually has in order to cover their bus tickets. With no money, they end up “hoboing” from Memphis to rural Mississippi.

During their quest, Eugene and Willie experience the blues legacy of Robert Johnson first-hand, taking part in an impromptu jam session at a roadhouse (or "juke joint" as Willie puts it), where Eugene gets the nickname of "Lightning" because of his musical skill. Eugene is deeply impressed and his feelings of the authenticity of Willie being an old bluesman takes firm hold in his mind. However, when he jokingly suggests to Willie that he himself ought to "sell his soul to the Devil at the crossroads", Willie strikes him, angrily telling Eugene he should never joke like that.

A romantic interest surfaces in the guise of a hitchhiker, Frances (Jami Gertz), who follows them. She and Eugene end up sharing a tender moment in a hayloft. After meddling from Willie, she abandons the two men leaving Eugene heartbroken, but with a true feeling for the blues, as he plays on an old Fender Telecaster guitar and a Pignose amplifier. Willie confesses to Eugene at this point that there is no missing Johnson song for Eugene to learn, but Willie tells the boy that he has proven himself far beyond what learning any blues song could ever teach him.

They ultimately reach their location in Mississippi: a rural crossroads in the middle of nowhere, where Willie reveals the ultimate secret: his musical ability (specifically, the harmonica) and the musical ability of Robert Johnson came about because of deals with the devil made at this very location. The Devil himself (a "Mr. Legba". later nicknamed "Scratch") shows up and says that the contract for Willie's soul is still valid, even if Willie is ultimately unsatisfied with how his life turned out.

Eugene, somewhat skeptical of the whole exchange and situation, steps into the conversation to help Willie. The Devil offers a challenge: If Eugene can come to a special concert and win a head-cutting guitar duel against his ringer guitarist (Steve Vai in the role of "Jack Butler"), then Willie gets his soul back. If Eugene loses, then Eugene's soul is now forfeit as well. Despite Willie's protests, Eugene agrees to the deal. Willie and Eugene are transported to a music hall, where metal-blues guitar master Jack Butler, who also sold his soul for musical ability, is wowing the crowd with his prowess.

Eugene and Jack Butler begin their blistering guitar duel, and Eugene is eventually able to win the battle by falling back on his classical training and performing music, ala the Yngwie Malmsteen-style, that his opponent cannot match. Willie's soul is freed, and he and Eugene are transported back to Mississippi, where they start walking again, talking of cities they plan to visit.



The script was an original by John Fusco, who had long been interested in blues music. He worked as a blues singer and musician but been warned to rest his vocals by a doctor. In 1981 his girlfriend, who was working at a rest home, told him that an old black man with a harmonica had been admitted. Fusco went to visit him and on the way dreamt up a story about what would happen if the player was a legendary blues player. This gave him the idea for the story.[1]

Fusco wrote the script as his Master's Thesis at New York University. It was only his second ever screenplay. Producer Mark Farliner acted as Fusco's independent adviser on it and later helped get it made.[2] Fusco was paid $250,000.[3]

Shooting took place on location in Louisiana as well as Hollywood. Blues legend Frank Frost made a cameo.

"I think the blues still speaks to kids today," said Ry Cooder who did the music. "It's so old that it's new."[4]

The filmmakers shot sad and happy endings and both were tested with audiences; the happy ending was chosen.[5] (The unhappy ending had Joe Seneca's character dying.[6])

Awards and nominations[edit]


Year Event Award Category Nomination Result Ref.
1986 Flanders International Film Festival Ghent Georges Delerue Prize Best Original Music Ry Cooder Won [7][8]


Ry Cooder said he spent a year working on the soundtrack.[9]


According to Ry Cooder the film "went down the tubes".[9]


The film currently has a 79% certified "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.[10] Roger Ebert in his review stated that the movie "borrows so freely and is a reminder of so many other movies that it's a little startling, at the end, to realize how effective the movie is and how original it manages to feel despite all the plunderings." He praised the film's acting and music, giving the movie 3.5 stars out of 4.[11]


  1. ^ At the Movies: Happy ending for a former blues singer. Lawrence Van Gelder. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 14 Mar 1986: C8.
  2. ^ FILM CLIPS: GETTING THROUGH 'OZ' WITH HELP OF HIS FRIENDS FILM CLIPS: A LITTLE HELP Mathews, Jack. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 21 June 1985: f1.
  3. ^ FOCUS PLOTS HAPPY BEGINNINGS: FOCUS 1985 Horn, John. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 31 Aug 1985: sd_e1.
  4. ^ POP EYE: RY COODER TAKES BLUES TO THE 'CROSSROADS' POP EYE Goldstein, Patrick. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 28 July 1985: t65.
  5. ^ Too Much Springsteen By Steve Pond Special to The Washington Post. The Washington Post (1974-Current file) [Washington, D.C] 06 Feb 1986: C7.
  6. ^ JOE SENECA ARRIVES AT HIS MOMENT OF TRUTH Goldstein, Patrick. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 21 Mar 1986: I1.
  7. ^ Awards & Nominations
  8. ^ Winner & Jury 1985-2012 Flandres International Film Festival Ghent
  9. ^ a b Recordings: Lettin' it slide Guitarist Ry Cooder won't follow rock trends Milward, John. Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) [Chicago, Ill] 20 Dec 1987: C28.
  10. ^ "Crossroads". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2012-02-10. 
  11. ^ "Crossroads :: :: Reviews". Retrieved 2012-02-10. 

External links[edit]