Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 15, 2004)
When I reviewed Steve Vai’s Live at the Astoria London, I mentioned my history with the 1986 movie Crossroads. Vai appears in this flick as a slick guitar player - talk about typecasting! - and since a couple of my college roommates adored his work, I got stuck watching this movie more times than I can count. We checked out Vai’s part of the film at least 100 times over the years, and I must have seen the whole picture no fewer that 15 times.
In Crossroads, young guitarist Eugene Martone (Ralph Macchio) obsesses over the blues. He goes to a local rest home in which blues legend Willie Brown (Joe Seneca) resides but can’t get past the security. To circumvent this, he gets a job as a janitor there, but when he meets his idol, Willie denies that he’s the right guy.
Eugene studies classical guitar at Juilliard, a place that frowns on his fascination with the blues. He receives a reprimand from his instructor who feels Eugene wastes his talent on “primitive” music. Eugene continues to work at the rest home, where he tells Willie he wants to find a legendary missing Robert Johnson tune. He thinks Willie can help him locate the number, but the old man again laughs at him. Eugene persists and sparks some memories when he shows Willie an old photo. We see a flashback in which Willie sold his soul to the devil to gain talent as a bluesman.
When Eugene plays guitar for Willie, the old man finally acknowledges his identity and the boy’s talent. However, Willie slams Eugene due to his lack of “mileage” and won’t let him have the missing Johnson tune unless the kid busts him out of the rest home and takes him home to Mississippi.
Reluctantly, Eugene agrees to Willie’s deal. They flee the rest home and hop a Greyhound to Memphis, which is how far Eugene’s money will take them. They’ll change buses there and Willie claims he’ll pick up the tab from there. On the way, Willie tells Eugene he sold his soul at the crossroads.
Inevitably, once they get to Memphis, it turns out Willie exaggerated about his wealth. They need to go 200 miles to Mississippi without the funds, so Willie proposes they hobo their way to his home. They get to know each other and Willie starts to influence Eugene’s musical way, especially when he pushes the boy to go electric.
Along the way, they encounter another hobo named Frances (Jami Gertz), a feisty runaway who claims to have a dancing gig in LA. Willie thinks that she’ll help them get rides, so they hook up despite her disinterest. Eventually they “borrow” a car from a sleazebag and all drive south. The rest of the film follows their journey as they get to know each other and their stories, all of which culminates in a fight for Willie’s soul.
As I alluded at the start, I can’t really view Crossroads objectively. It long ago became too ingrained in my past for me to see it on its own. I can try, though, and through the prism of attempted objectivity, I can say… it’s okay.
Actually, there’s not a whole lot to the movie. I suppose one could look at it as a coming of age tale, for it takes Eugene from his sheltered existence to come into contact with a grittier side of life. But does he really grow from start to finish? Not particularly; Eugene seems more spontaneous by the end and he develops some humility, but I don’t think he demonstrates any other notable changes.
Frances exists as little more than a plot point; her character development comes across as stilted and forced. Only Willie seems like anything more than a one-dimensional personality, although even he doesn’t present great breadth. Still, we sense a history and life with him, whereas the others feel like generic personalities.
Much of the credit goes to Seneca’s talents, for he brings much more substantial depth to Willie than the personality deserves as written. Seneca delivers a crusty, unsentimental performance that makes Willie memorable and lively. He also shows the character’s vulnerability via small bits like the heartbreaking way he hangs his head when he thinks his case is lost.
In a lot of ways, the main plot to Crossroads feels like little more than foreplay to get us to the climax. That’s where we finally see Jack Butler played by Vai, the main attraction for many viewers. There’s no way to prove this, but I’d bet the majority of the current audience for Crossroads comes from Vai partisans, and his scenes continue to entertain. The man couldn’t act, and there’s no sillier moment in movie history than the sight of Vai attempting to look nervous. Nonetheless, the guitar duel delivers the goods for those who love his work, and I expect that once my friends get their copies of the DVD, they’ll put the duel on repeat endlessly.
I enjoyed watching Crossroads for the first time in about 15 years, but I can’t say it offers much of a movie. It seems entertaining enough and presents nice guitar work. Otherwise, the film has little reason to stand out from the crowd.
Footnote: the climactic duel - and Vai’s relentless emoting - becomes more entertaining when you know that Steve played the parts for both the Butler and Eugene characters. This doesn’t hold true for the whole scene but just for the classical-influenced bit.