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 (Ralph 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. 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" along with a supposed lost song that Johnson never recorded.

In his quest to find this song he discovers old newspaper clippings on microform which reveals that Johnson's long time friend musician Willie "Blind Dog Fulton also known as Smoke House" Brown (Joe Seneca) is still alive and incarcerated in a nearby minimum security hospital. Eugene goes to find out if he is in fact the same Willie Brown who was a close friend of Johnson's but Willie refuses to see him and Eugene is sent away to the playing of a harmonica which was the instrument Blind Dog Fulton played. Seeing a help wanted sign Eugene starts working part time as a janitor at the hospital in hopes of getting to talk to Willie.

Despite Eugene's attempts Willie at first denies several times that he is that Willie Brown but after Eugene shows him a photograph of Blind Dog Fulton along side other bluesmen when he was famous and hearing Eugene play some blues on his guitar he finally admits that he actually is Blind Dog Fulton. 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 tells him no and Willie says he thought Eugene might be a "Lightenin Boy" but he's just a "chicken ass", reluctantly Eugene agrees help and after nearly getting caught breaking Willie out they head south to Memphis, Tennessee and 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 scammed 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. Lightenin Boy sticks and 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'll just do what Willie did and "sell his soul to the Devil at the crossroads" causing Willie to slap him angrily telling to never say that again.

During a small argument between Eugene, Willie scoffs at Eugene's old acoustic guitar telling him "Muddy Waters invented electricity". The two end up in a pawn shop where Willie barters Eugene's wristwatch for an old Fender Telecaster and a Pignose amplifier which Eugene can hook onto his belt enabling him to walk around and still play.

While looking for shelter from the rain to two come across a 17 year old runaway named Frances (Jami Gertz) who is hitchhiking to Los Angeles who has taken shelter in an abandoned house. When she see's the two men she tries to make them leave by pulling a switchblade knife but faster than she thought he'd be Willie slaps the knife out of her hand. Shortly after she leaves to try and find her a ride and Willie tells Eugene to pack up and follow her saying that Francis being sexy will get them more rides than Eugene's thumb.

Later that night after Willie and Eugene have an impromptu jam session outside a local bar which is broken up by the bar owner Eugene realizes that Francis is going to sleep with the bar owner and rescues her which leads Eugene and the bar owner to get into a struggle but Willie breaks into the room brandishing a pistol he bought at the pawn shop where they got Eugene's Fender and the trio take the bar owners money and car telling them that if he calls the cops in the next 24 hours Francis will press statutory rape charges against the bar owner. The next day Willie takes them to a junkyard where they get rid of the bar owners car.

That night the three decide to take shelter in an old barn where Francis and Eugene end up having sex in a hayloft however its broken up when the owner of the barn along with two Deputy Sheriff's bust them. They're taken before the Sheriff who allows them to go and watches them cross a bridge that ends in the next County.

That evening the three get a room at a motel with the left over money Willie and Eugene earned from the earlier jam session outside the bar. Willie, Eugene and Francis again get into a minor argument and Willie tells the two to go to the juke joint on the "your side of the road" and he'll do his business on "his side of the road" meaning the White side and the Black side if the street but the two get into trouble after Francis steals a man's wallet. After she gives back the wallet the two head across the street where they nearly get in trouble again because of them being white and because of how Eugene is dressed with his guitar like he's ready to play "in a black man's juke" but during the confrontation Willie takes the stage and after getting everyone's attention calls for "Lightenin Boy" to be allowed to the stage to perform for them sparing Eugene from them taking his guitar away and possibly getting beaten. The two play a set that gets the place jumping and a patron of the Juke tells Francis that she recognizes Blind Dog Fulton and that she used to listen to him when she was a little girl. Later that night Eugene and a drunken Willie get into yet another argument and Willie goes to his bed and passes out having a dream where Devil's Assistant who gave Willie the contract to sign when he made his deal at the Crossroads when he was young telling him that the "Hellhounds are on his trail.

That morning, Willie catches Francis with her bags packed and leaving to continue her trip to L.A. After a short conversation Willie gives her some money and she leaves. Later when Eugene wakes he asks Willie where she is but he doesn't have to say a word. Eugene realizes she's left him breaking his heart. Willie confesses to him that there is no lost song and he only told him that he would teach it to him so Eugene would get him out of the home telling Eugene "Ya gotta do it for yourself, that's what Robert would have told ya." Now with a true feeling for the blues Eugene plays his guitar and Willie sits listening nodding in approval acknowledging Eugene "Lightenin Boy" Martone as a true Blues Man.

After visiting a house that used to be a brothel that Willie, Robert and several other blues men frequented and talking to the granddaughter of the woman who owned the brothel Willie askes her about the Crossroads and if she knew how to get him there. She tells him she knows the Crossroads and gets the men a ride.

When they arrive Willie tells Eugene to start playing and that if "he" hears him and he "plays it right" he'll come. As Eugene plays a black Trans Am comes up the road with the Devil's assistant and a woman in it. They offer the men a ride but Willie tells him he wants to talk to Legba and is told that he's changed his name to "Scratch". Again being offered a ride and turning it down the man and woman drive off. Immediately after they've gone Legba appears and Willie tells him the contract is void on account that Willie never got what he wanted from the deal but Legba says that the contract for Willie's soul is still valid, even if Willie is ultimately unsatisfied with how his life turned out.

However Legba makes mention of another man who sold his soul named Jack Butler (Steve Vai) who plays guitar in head-cutting guitar duels but Eugene reminds Legba that Willie doesn't play guitar to which Legba offers to let Eugene sit in for Willie in the duel. If Eugene wins Willie gets his soul back but after asking what he gets if Eugene loses Eugene puts up his own soul along with Willie's despite Willie's protests. Willie and Eugene are transported to a music hall, where Jack Butler is playing to a full house of people dancing.

After the performance Willie gives Eugene his Mojo bag just before Legba's Assistant calls him down to the stage. Without a word Eugene plugs in his guitar and the duel begins with neither guitarist able to out play the other but the duel seems to come to an end with Eugene's defeat but Eugene falls back on his classical guitar training and busting out a solo that Butler is unable to match losing the duel. While a victorious Willie and Eugene play for the crowd at the music hall Legba tears up the contract for Willie's soul freeing him from Hell.

Afterward Willie and Eugene are transported back to Crossroads where they start walking and Willie says he wants to go to Chicago and Eugene agrees to go with him. Willie tells Eugene that after they visit Chicago he's on his own and that he needs to go on without him and spread the music past where he found it, Blind Dog extends his hand to Lightenin Boy to seal the deal that Lightenin will do that and the movie ends with the two Blues Men shaking hands making their own deal on the Crossroads.



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]