‘Crossroads’ (1986): No karate, kids—just the evil blues

Chasing the elusive blues is no small task…when you’re tradin’ licks with the devil.

By Jason Hink

Finally making its way to Blu-ray thanks to the folks at Mill Creek Entertainment (who continue pumping out lost titles from my youth) is Walter Hill’s Columbia Pictures release, Crossroads, the 1986 music-focused road drama starring Ralph Macchio, Joe Seneca and Jami Gertz, with appearances by Joe Morton, Robert Judd and rocker Steve Vai, who provides the guitar hooks throughout the soundtrack as well as appearing in the film’s surreal finale.

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In mid-1980s New York, 17-year-old Julliard wunderkind Eugene Martone (Ralph Macchio) is studying the classics—the classic guitar, that is—and looking for more fulfillment. In his research he stumbles upon the myth of famed blues guitarist Robert Johnson, and how the legendary musician was claimed to have sold his soul to the devil “at the crossroads,” which would seem to be a problem for anyone, musician or not. On top of that, Johnson is said to have written a song that holds great mystery, for it’s gone missing…and perhaps holds the key to unlocking the spirit of the blues. Or something like that…

Adventurous Eugene sets out to find the elusive piece of music by researching old newspaper archives at the library (that’s how you did it before the internet, kids), hoping to discover what happened to Johnson in the intervening years. He doesn’t find Johnson, but his research leads him to old-timer musician Willie Brown (Joe Seneca), reportedly a long lost friend of Johnson’s. Eugene wants to talk to Willie about all this ancient music hokum, but there’s one problem: Willie is living out his elderly days in a minimum security hospital, wheelchair-bound and incarcerated on an attempted murder charge. In an effort to talk to the man, Eugene takes a job as a janitor at the facility and, after repeated failed attempts, finally manages some one-on-one time with Willie. But mystery abounds…is this Willie Brown actually the Willie Brown, friend of the long lost Robert Johnson? Does Willie know the whereabouts of that lost piece of unpublished music? There’s only one way to find out: break Willie out of the facility and take a road trip south where Willie says he has unfinished business to take care of in Mississippi (it’s also the only way Willie will agree to answer the boy’s questions).

When Crossroads premiered in 1986 it was inevitable that comparisons were going to be drawn from moviegoers and critics on how closely the film appears to resemble Macchio’s blockbuster, career-making hit, 1984’s The Karate Kid (and in fact, Karate Kid Part II hit theaters just three months after Crossroads in 1986—a major dose of Macchio that year). The comparison’s easy to make: instead of a young, eager martial arts student, Macchio is a young, eager guitar student. Instead of relying on old sage Mr. Miyagi to learn karate skills, he leans on old sage Willie Brown to learn the blues. In the midst of his Crossroads journey, he finds time to romance Jami Gertz (I don’t know about you, but we 80s boys all wanted to romance Jami Gertz)…which was not unlike his puppy-dog romancing of Elisabeth Shue in The Karate Kid.

But delineating elements can be found in Crossroads that make it an enjoyable road film, standing on its own without need to constantly reminisce about the more action-oriented Karate Kid (and really, had anyone but Macchio played the lead, nobody would be making these comparisons). I found myself caught up in the road trip drama, with Eugene and Willie encountering a number of colorful locales and characters, most prominent being the aforementioned Gertz as the tough-but-gorgeous Frances, a 17-year-old hitchhiker fleeing her abusive stepfather. After a budding romance develops between Frances and Eugene, her eventual split is legitimately emotional, acting as a springboard for Eugene to refocus and remember what’s truly important—the blues.

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Things take a surreal turn when the pair literally reach the crossroads, located in the middle of nowhere in rural Mississippi, where Willie reveals he got his musical chops thanks to a deal he made with the devil (portrayed here in the form of Robert Judd). Eugene doesn’t believe all this hokum…and that sets up the final showdown: a guitar battle against Jack, the Devil’s chosen player (portrayed by recording artist Steve Vai, who’s rocked with Whitesnake, David Lee Roth and Ozzy Osbourne, to name just a few). What follows has to be seen to believed as Eugene and Jack trade licks on a stage with supernatural forces at work and freaky-looking audience members looking on. It’s a little jarring considering how straight-up the film appeared up to that point, but it’s fun nonetheless.

In the end, will Eugene lose his soul to the Devil? Will Willie finally be able to free himself from his decades-old contract with the Devil? It’s a mysterious adventure that even Daniel-san and Miyagi would struggle to solve (though there are a few instances in Crossroads where those karate moves would have been helpful!).

Director Walter Hill helmed many popular action flicks I enjoyed growing up, including 48 Hrs., Red Heat, and his directorial debut, the Charles Bronson ass-kicker, Hard Times, as well as directing several episodes of TV’s Tales from the Crypt and Deadwood. 1986 was a big year for Hill; in addition to directing Crossroads, two movies he wrote and produced also hit screens that year: action thriller Blue City (based on Ross Macdonald’s 1940s novel) and Aliens, the high octane, James Cameron-directed sequel to 1979’s Alien.

Crossroads took in around $5.8 million at the box office, placing it 112th in 1986’s list of theatrical releases, just behind The Hitcher and Transformers: The Movie. In contrast, that same year’s Karate Kid Part II—also a Columbia Pictures release—was a runaway hit, ranking third that year at the box office with a $115 million gross. As it turned out, movie fans preferred Macchio sweeping the leg and waxing on as opposed to finger picking the Fender Telecaster.

But that just makes having a modern Blu-ray release of this semi-obscure title all the more welcome. Mill Creek knocks it out of the park again, licensing Crossroads from Sony (owner of original studio Columbia Pictures) to give fans the first ever HD presentation of the movie on disc—a nice upgrade over the 2004 DVD. There are no special features (standard for these Mill Creek catalog releases), but for the display minded, the package arrives in Mill Creek’s fun, VHS-inspired slipcase, complete with faux markings and stickers (“Drama,” “Top Hit”) and fake “case wear,” reminiscent of the the box I saw while perusing my local Hometown Video in the late ’80s. The ‘R’-rated widescreen 1.85:1 presentation of Crossroads runs 1 hour and 39 minutes and features DTS-HD Master Audio.

All said, the presentation looks and sounds great on my modest 60-inch living room TV setup. Keep ’em coming!

2 thoughts on “‘Crossroads’ (1986): No karate, kids—just the evil blues

  1. A slight correction to your review. At no point is Willie Brown mistaken for Robert Johnson in the film, nor is it inferred that he may be Johnson. Willie Brown, (whom Robert called out for in the song Crossroads), was an actual bluesman, who died in 1952, as well as being a friend contemporary of Robert’s. The Real Willie Brown was a guitarist & not a harmonica player however.

    While the film’s Willie Brown is fictional, he is based in part on the rral one.

    Liked by 1 person

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