Some Thoughts from Down at the Crossroads

Crossroads

WARNING: Contains spoilers for the 1986 movie Crossroads (not the 2002 Britney Spears film). If you haven’t seen it, I wholeheartedly recommend it.

I recently rewatched Walter Hill’s movie Crossroads, and was surprised by how much I had internalized its depiction of the relationship between music and magic, and how that had influenced my own Tufa novels. I first saw it at a sneak preview prior to the Goldie Hawn football film Wildcats, and liked it so much I left before the main movie started; I didn’t want to lose the mood Crossroads left me with.

For those unfamiliar with it, the story involves Long Island teenager Eugene Martone (Ralph Macchio), who befriends elderly convict Willie Brown because he believes the old man is the last person living who might know a missing song by Robert Johnson, king of the delta blues. Eugene helps Willie escape to Mississippi, where he supposedly followed Johnson’s example and sold his soul to the devil, and now wants out of the deal.

Eugene (Ralph Macchio) and Willie (Joe Seneca)

Eugene (Ralph Macchio) and Willie (Joe Seneca)

The first thing that struck me during this rewatch was how realistic and lived-in most of the places, both in New York and down south, looked. After the pristine untouched Alabama depicted in the underwhelming Hank Williams film I Saw the Light, it was refreshing to see rusted old cars, people in bars who looked like real people as opposed to prettified extras, and even something as basic as a frayed screen on a door.

The second thing was the mundane depiction of the supernatural. When, in flashbacks, Willie sells his soul to the devil (known as “Legba,” a name erroneously borrowed from Haitian vodou), his satanic assistant, played by Joe Morton, arrives in a car, dressed in sophisticated clothes from the period, and gets Willie’s signature on a normal-looking contract (later, when that contract is shown again, it has a yellow carbon copy attached, like any modern contract would). In the contemporary story, Morton shows up again looking no older, but in a fancy modern sportscar and dressed in modern (circa 1986) clothes. When Legba, now calling himself “Scratch,” also appears, it’s with no effects; he simply walks into the scene. In fact, the only visual effect I recall, certainly the only one that’s meant to imply the supernatural except for some brief dream sequences, are fast-moving storm clouds matted in behind Scratch when he transports Willie and Eugene to “hell.”

The third thing was the interrelationship of music, experience, and magic. Eugene, at 17, is a guitar prodigy, first seen playing Mozart’s “Turkish March” on the guitar, which he finishes with a blues-style coda that his snooty teacher doesn’t appreciate. He’s also a blues fan, papering his walls with photos and articles and obsessing over the music of another culture the way only a sheltered white boy can. Willie taunts him about this from the beginning, mocking his background and playing, and trying in his abrasive way to get Eugene to reach down for something deeper than mere flawless technique. The first time Eugene really breaks through to that is when he’s abandoned by his brief romantic interest (Jamie Gertz), followed almost immediately by Willie admitting that there is no lost Robert Johnson song, and that he’s been using Eugene to get back to Mississippi.

And then, they go to hell.

It’s implied that this version of hell, an African American roadhouse circa 1920, is a personal one for Willie. Certainly everything about it seems to echo Willie’s life. And yet, when Eugene faces off against another guitarist for Willie’s soul, it’s heavy metal shredder Jack Butler (Steve Vai). That used to nag at me; why would Willie’s hell have a white boy as the devil’s guitarist? But then I realized that Butler has nothing to do with Willie; he’s a reflection of Eugene. Butler is confident, showy, and really, really good, all the things Eugene wants to be, all the things that he thought Johnson’s lost song would make him. It makes sense that the devil, now hoping to get Eugene’s soul as well, would conjure this image.

Eugene faces off against Jack Butler (Steve Vai) in "hell."

Eugene faces off against Jack Butler (Steve Vai) in “hell.”

So the finale pits Eugene against his own dark reflection. At first it’s an even match, but gradually Butler shows him up, culminating in a fiery display that Eugene clearly can’t match. But instead of trying, or giving up, he falls back on something that he can do: a Paganini guitar piece (Paganini also allegedly sold his soul to the devil), which Butler tries but fails to emulate. Thus Eugene wins not just with what he’s learned from Willie, but by combining it with his own experience. As Willie says at the end, “You have to take the music past where you found it,” which Eugene has already shown he can do.

Replace the word “music” with writing, art, even life itself, and it’s still good advice.

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