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
Music by Ry Cooder
Steve Vai
Cinematography John Bailey
Edited by Freeman A. Davies
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release date
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 American coming-of-age musical drama film inspired by the legend of blues musician Robert Johnson. Starring 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. 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 New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, where he wrote Crossroads as an assignment in a master class led by the 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.


Eugene Martone (Ralph Macchio) is 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, 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 the blues musician Willie Brown in an old folks prison and plays him some blues on his guitar. Willie finally admits that he is Blind Dog Fulton, a bandmate of Johnson's, and says he knows the missing song 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.

During a minor argument with 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 play at the same time.

While seeking shelter from the rain, the two come across a teen runaway, Frances (Jami Gertz), who is hitchhiking to Los Angeles and has taken shelter in an abandoned house. When she sees both men, she tries to make them leave by pulling a switchblade knife, but Willie slaps the knife out of her hand. Shortly after she leaves to try finding a ride, and Willie tells Eugene to pack up and follow her, saying that her attractiveness will get them more rides than Eugene's thumb.

That night, Willie and Eugene have an impromptu jam session outside a local bar which is broken up by the bar owner. Eugene realizes that Frances is being seduced by the bar owner. His attempt to rescue her leads to a struggle between him and the bar owner, but Willie breaks into the room brandishing a pistol. The trio take the bar owner's money and car, telling Him that if he calls the police in the next 24 hours, Frances will press statutory rape charges against him. The next day Willie leads Eugene and Frances to a junkyard where they leave the car.

They seek shelter in an old barn where Frances and Eugene become romantic in a hayloft. However the owner of the barn and two deputy sheriffs discover them and take them to the sheriff. The sheriff allows them to go. Later, the three get a room at a motel with the leftover earnings from the earlier jam session. Willie, Eugene and Frances again get into a minor argument and Willie tells the two to go to the juke joint on "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 of the street) but the two get into trouble after Frances steals a man's wallet. After she returns the wallet she and Eugene head across the street where they nearly get in trouble again because of 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 "Lightnin' 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 delights the crowd. A patron tells Frances 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 an intoxicated Willie get into yet another argument. Willie goes to his bed and dreams about the devil's assistant who gave Willie the contract to sign when he made his deal at the crossroads when he was young.

In the morning, Willie catches Frances 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 realizes she has 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 old folks prison. He advises 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 "Lightnin' Boy" Martone as a true bluesman.

After visiting a house that used to be a brothel that Willie, Robert and several other bluesmen frequented and talking to the granddaughter of the woman who owned the brothel, Willie asks her about the crossroads and if she knows 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 has changed his name to "Scratch". Again being offered a ride and turning it down, the car departs. 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. Eugene reminds Legba that Willie does not play guitar; Legba offers to let Eugene sit in for Willie in the duel. If Eugene wins, Willie gets his soul returned to him, 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 to the stage. Without a word Eugene plugs in his guitar and the duel begins with neither guitarist able to out play the other. The duel seems to come to an end with Eugene's defeat, but Eugene falls back on his classical guitar training and plays a solo that Butler is unable to match, losing the duel. As a victorious Willie and Eugene play for the crowd in the music hall, Legba tears up the contract for Willie's soul, freeing him from hell.

Afterward Willie and Eugene are transported back to the crossroads, where they start walking and Willie says he wants to go to Chicago. 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 Lightnin' Boy to seal the deal. The two bluesmen shake hands, making their own deal at 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 had been warned by a doctor to rest his voice. 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 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]

Jami Gertz was cast as the female lead. "She had the warmth I was looking for," Hill said, "and she was feisty, but I wondered, is she strong enough? She has to put Macchio through the experience of falling in love, and then she has to leave him, to strengthen his character for the movie's final showdown. I decided to go with her, and I was amazed by how strong she seemed on the screen."[4]

Hill was aware of some surface similarities to The Karate Kid: "You boil it down, and it sounds like a young kid and a wise old guy and their showdown with evil," said Hill. "But if you really look at 'Crossroads,' it's a completely different movie...I knew my most difficult task would be creating real, believable scenes between Macchio and Seneca. They had to be real characters; with an ongoing reality level, to work at all. You have to set the stage, or when your movie shifts gears to fantasy, you lose your audience."[4]

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

"I think the blues still speaks to kids today," said Ry Cooder, who performed the music with Steve Vai. "It's so old that it's new."[5]

The filmmakers shot sad and happy endings and both were tested with audiences; the happy ending was chosen.[6] (The unhappy ending had Joe Seneca's character dying.[7])

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 [8][9]


Ry Cooder said he spent a year working on the soundtrack.[10]

Response and reviews[edit]

Farliner said "This is as tricky a picture to market as anything. I was the first one who tried to sell the story. I know how tricky it is... It could be a classic crossover movie. But you could blow that opportunity real quick with a bad campaign." He thought Columbia had an excellent marketing team and liked that the studio spent $6 million on launching it.[11]

According to Ry Cooder, the film "went down the tubes".[10]

As of 2012, the film had a 79% certified "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.[12]

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.[13]


  1. ^ Van Gelder, Lawrence (14 March 1986). "Happy Ending for a Former Blues Singer". New York Times. p. C8. 
  2. ^ Mathews, Jack (21 June 1985). "Film Clips: Getting Through 'Oz' with Help of His Friends Film Clips: A Little Help". Los Angeles Times. p. F1. 
  3. ^ Horn, John (31 Aug 1985). "Focue Plots Happy Beginnings: Focus 1985". Los Angeles Times. p. sd_e1. 
  4. ^ a b Ebert, Roger (16 Mar 1986). "Director Walter Hill Turns Movies into Myths". Chicago Sun-Times. p. 7. 
  5. ^ Goldstein, Patrick (28 July 1985). "Pop Eye: Ry Cooder Takes Blues to the 'Crossroads' Pop Eye". Los Angeles Times. p. t65. 
  6. ^ Pond, Steve (6 February 1986). "Too Much Springsteen". Washington Post. p. C7. 
  7. ^ Goldstein, Patrick (21 March 1986). "Joe Seneca Arrives at His Moment of Truth". Los Angeles Times. p. I1. 
  8. ^ Awards & Nominations
  9. ^ Winner & Jury 1985-2012 Flandres International Film Festival Ghent Archived August 3, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.
  10. ^ a b Milward, John (20 December 1987). "Lettin' it slide: Guitarist Ry Cooder won't follow rock trends". Chicago Tribune. Chicago. p. C28. 
  11. ^ FILM CLIPS: ARGENTINE 'STORY' WITH NO LANGUAGE BARRIERS Mathews, Jack. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 14 Mar 1986: I1.
  12. ^ "Crossroads". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2012-02-10. 
  13. ^ Ebert, Roger (14 March 1986). "Crossroads :: Reviews". Retrieved 2012-02-10. 

External links[edit]