Crossroads (1986 film)

Crossroads is a 1986 America 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 by Ry Cooder featuring classical guitar by William Kanengiser and harmonica by Sonny Terry. Steve Vai appears in the film as the devil's virtuosic guitar player in the climactic guitar duel.

Theatrical release poster
Directed byWalter Hill
Written byJohn Fusco
Produced byMark Carliner
CinematographyJohn Bailey
Edited byFreeman A. Davies
Music byRy Cooder
Color processTechnicolor
Distributed byColumbia Pictures
Release date
  • March 14, 1986 (1986-03-14)
Running time
99 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$5,839,000 (US)[1]

Fusco was a traveling blues musician prior to attending New York University 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 was sold to Columbia Pictures while Fusco was still a student.


17-year-old Eugene Martone has a fascination for blues music while studying classical guitar at the Juilliard School for Performing Arts in New York City. Researching blues and guitar music brings famed Robert Johnson's mythically creative acclaim to his attention; 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", as well as a famed "missing song" that was lost, supposedly evermore, to the world.

In his quest to find this song, he researches old archived newspaper clippings, learning that Johnson's longtime friend, musician Willie Brown, is alive and incarcerated for murder or attempted murder in a nearby minimum security hospital. Eugene goes to see the elderly man, who denies several times that he is that Willie Brown. He finally admits his identity after hearing Eugene play some blues (but notes that Eugene "plays with no soul"). 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 agrees and they head south. The boy soon realizes, however, that Willie is constantly running minor scams such as claiming that he has more money than he actually has to cover their bus tickets. With only $40 on them, they end up "hoboing" from Memphis to rural Mississippi.

During their quest, Eugene and Willie experience the blues legacy of Robert Johnson first-hand, taking part in an impromptu jam session at a "jook joint" (as Willie calls it), where Eugene is given the nickname "Lightning Boy" by Willie because of his musical skill. Eugene jokingly suggests to Willie that he himself ought to "sell his soul to the Devil at the crossroads", Willie angrily slaps him and demands he not to joke about that.

The pair meet 17-year-old Frances, who is fleeing her abusive stepfather. She hitchhikes with them, and she and Eugene start a relationship. When she abandons them to continue her own journey, Eugene is left heartbroken but with a deeper feeling for the blues.

Willie helps Eugene buy a portable Pignose amplifier, through which Eugene plays his old Fender Telecaster. Willie tells Eugene that the secret of playing the blues is using a slide. Willie confesses that there is no missing Johnson song, but tells the boy that he has proven himself far beyond what learning any blues song could ever teach him.

They reach a deserted crossroads in rural Mississippi, where Willie reveals his secret: his ability on the harmonica came about because of a deal with the Devil, which he made at this very location. Willie now hopes to end the deal. The Devil, who calls himself Scratch and Legba, shows up and insists that the contract for Willie's soul is still valid, even if Willie is dissatisfied with how his life turned out.

Eugene, believing the other two are joking around, steps into the conversation. The Devil offers a challenge: if Eugene can come to a special concert and win a guitar battle against his ringer guitarist, then Willie gets his soul back. If Eugene loses, then Eugene too forfeits his soul. Despite Willie's protests, Eugene agrees to the deal. Willie and Eugene are transported to a music hall, where metal-blues guitar master Jack Butler, who also sold his soul for musical ability, is wowing the crowd with his prowess. Eugene, now understanding the situation, receives a mojo bag from Willie to hold in his pocket. He also slips his slide on, giving him a perceived advantage over his opponent.

Eugene and Butler trade flamboyant guitar parts, with each able to top the other. Eventually, Eugene falls back on his classical training, playing a fast and difficult piece that Butler cannot match. Dejected, Butler drops his guitar and strides off, and the Devil tears up Willie's contract, freeing the bluesman's soul.

Willie and Eugene are transported back to Mississippi, where they start walking again, talking of cities they plan to visit.




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.[2] He expanded on the myth of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil at the crossroads. Coincidentally, Johnson was inducted to the inaugural class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in January 1986, while the film was in production.

Fusco wrote the script as his Master's Thesis at New York University. It was only his second screenplay. Producer Mark Carliner acted as Fusco's independent adviser on it and later helped get it made.[3] Fusco was paid $250,000.[4]

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."[5] Guitar specialist Arlen Roth was hired as Macchio's musical coach.[6]

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."[5]


Shooting took place on location in Beulah, 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."[7]

Cooder says the final duel involving Vai "had to be all mapped out, since we had to carefully choreograph the call-and-response of that guitar duel and use it as playback during the filming. Steve Vai is tremendously scientific when it comes to guitar playing, and was able to adapt to that process."[8]

The original script ended with Joe Seneca's character dying on a Greyhound bus.[9] Director Walter Hill's father had died shortly before production commenced, and he found filming this scene difficult, so he also shot a happier ending.[9] Both were tested with audiences; the happy ending was chosen.[10][11]

Crossroads was Robert Judd's final film role. He died of stomach cancer in January 1986, two months before the film's theatrical release.


Ry Cooder spent a year working on the film.[12] He later said:

That was an easy film to understand. We’ve all looked at that myth about a white kid going South, and I knew the sign posts along the way. Old time players, juke joints, the lonely roads you go down ... These things are all wordlessly spoken of in blues music, which is an encyclopedia of experience. I had songs in my head that dealt with every scene in Crossroads. To mold them into shape for that film was like Blues 101.[8]

Macchio was taught to play guitar by Arlen Roth in preparation for filming.[13] Roth writes that he and Macchio would work together for two hours per day, after which Macchio would work with his karate instructor to prepare for the forthcoming Karate Kid 2.[13] Macchio initially hoped to be able to play some of the music on screen himself, but came to realise that the difficult pieces the professional guitarists were preparing would be beyond him.[13]

Guitar duelEdit

The climactic guitar duel between Eugene and Butler was originally intended to be a slide-guitar blues contest, with Cooder appearing on screen as Butler, and with Roth dubbing Eugene's part.[13] Director Walter Hill decided to replace Cooder and produce a harder "boxing match" style battle, with Keith Richards, Frank Zappa, and Stevie Ray Vaughan considered for the part of Butler.[14] He settled on Alcatrazz player Steve Vai, hoping that the fashionable shred guitar style would increase the film's appeal to a wider audience.[14] Cooder was disappointed; he and Roth felt the use of a contemporary musical style was not in keeping with the movie's blues theme, and would badly date the film later.[13]

The director shot an additional duel, which was to appear before the final confrontation. This pitted Vai's Jack Butler against a blues player portrayed by Shuggie Otis; Otis was to lose this, establishing how threatening Butler was.[13][15] The producers decided not to use this footage in the final film.[13]

Eugene wins the duel by playing a neoclassical metal composition called "Eugene's Trick Bag", which quotes heavily from violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini's "Caprice No. 5".[14] This reprises parts of the classical playing that William Kanengiser had dubbed for Eugene at the film's beginning; in the final duel, Vai dubs "Eugene's Trick Bag" while Macchio mimed on Eugene's Telecaster. The identity of the red superstrat guitar that Butler plays on-screen became something of a mystery. Guitar World magazine later uncovered that it was a custom Charvel, built either by Grover Jackson or Charvel builder Mike Shannon, and equipped with DiMarzio pickups and a Floyd Rose tremolo.[16] The guitar was Vai's own and, as Butler drops it heavily to the floor, the production team hastily constructed mock-up instruments for the shot.[16] The original guitar, signed by Vai, it is now in the collection of the Hard Rock Cafe company.[16]

Roth later released a recording of the planned final duel, between himself and Cooder, on his SoundCloud channel.[17]

Soundtrack albumEdit

A soundtrack album was released alongside the film, featuring 37 minutes of the film's music. The album does not feature Eugene's classical playing (which was performed by William Kanengiser) nor the final duel with Jack Butler. Vai's playing, including the duel, is featured on his album The Elusive Light and Sound, Vol. 1.

Music chronologyEdit

Timing Events Song Name or description Performers CD release
0:00:18 Opening Theme Harmonica solo theme Sonny Terry
0:03:20 Robert Johnson Studio session "Crossroads Blues" (Robert Johnson) Ry Cooder, Terry Evans Alt. Version on the "Crossroads OST"
0:06:07 Played by "Willie" while "Eugene" leaves the hospital Harmonica Solo Sonny Terry
0:07:24 Played by "Willie," while Ralph clean the floor & before the first meeting Harmonica Solo Sonny Terry
0:09:24 "Eugene" Classical Guitar Juilliard Audition "Turkish March" (Mozart) / Blues Coda William Kanengiser
0:10:22 Other Student Girl Classical Guitar Juilliard Audition J. S. Bach - Gigue - Suite BWV 995 William Kanengiser
0:13:07 Eugene Classical Guitar Practice "Eugene's Trick Bag" (Classic Version) William Kanengiser
0:14:00 Eugene Acoustic Guitar Practice Guitar Solo Ry Cooder
0:15:02 "Willie" Photo memories "See You in Hell, Blind Boy" (extract) Alan Pasqua, Van Dyke Parks Crossroads OST
0:17:25 "Eugene" Guitar Demo for "Willie" Guitar Solo Arlen Roth, Ry Cooder
0:22:05 "Willie" Joy to leave the hospital Harmonica solo Sonny Terry
0:22:55 "Willie" Escape, part 1 Open Tuning Guitar Slide Solo Ry Cooder
0:23:46 "Willie" Escape, part 2 Harmonica & Open Tuning Guitar slide Ry Cooder, Sonny Terry
0:25:28 Bus Departure Blues Band (instrumental)
0:30:01 Bus Money Issues "Viola Lee Blues" (extract) Walt Sereth, Jim Dickinson, Jorge Calderon, Ry Cooder, George Bohannon, Jim Keltner Crossroads OST
0:31:48 "Eugene" play while is walkin' Guitar solo Ry Cooder
0:32:15 The Willie's Train Lesson Harmonica train solo, Guitar response Ry Cooder, Arlen Roth, Sonny Terry
0:33:15 Willie Memories "See You in Hell, Blind Boy" (extract) Alan Pasqua, Van Dyke Parks Crossroads OST
0:35:13 Eugene tryin' the Fender & the Pignose Electric Guitar Solo Ry Cooder, Arlen Roth
0:36:15 Eugene Fender's blues, Willie & Eugene Rain's Walk, Frances' meeting Electric Slide Guitar Solo Ry Cooder
0:40:02 Eugene, Willie & Frances take the road to far south Electric Slide Guitar Solo Ry Cooder
0:40:40 Eugene & Willie Street's Gig Electric Guitar & Harmonica Ry Cooder, Arlen Roth, Sonny Terry
0:42:12 Eugene Hobo's Practicing Electric Slide Guitar Solo Ry Cooder
0:42:52 Music From the pub, "Trio" and the owner affair "He Made a Woman Out of Me" Amy Madigan, Ry Cooder, Jim Dickinson, William "Smitty" Smith, Nathan East, Jim Keltner Crossroads OST
0:46:48 On the road to Jacksonville, Florida Electric Slide Guitar & Drums Ry Cooder, Drums Jim Keltner
0:49:02 Trio sunset's chat about the lost song Acoustic Slide Guitar Solo Ry Cooder
0:56:13 Willie play while Trio walk on the bridge Harmonica Solo Sonny Terry
0:57:20 Music from "Sonny Crup's Place" "Down in Mississippi" Jorge Calderon, Ry Cooder, Miguel Cruz, Bobby King, Terry Evans, Willie Green, Jim Keltner, Jim Dickinson Crossroads OST
0:59:20 First song in the "White's pub" "If I Lose" (Ralph Stanley) Amy Madigan (Vocal)
1:00:52 First song in Sonny Crup's Place "Cotton Needs Pickin'" Otis Taylor, Ry Cooder, Frank Frost, Jim Dickinson, Richard "Shubby" Holmes, John Price Crossroads OST
1:01:42 Second song in the "White's pub" Instrumental country music
1:03:42 Second song in Sonny Crup's Place "Maintenance Man" Otis Taylor, Ry Cooder, Frank Frost, Jim Dickinson, Richard "Shubby" Holmes, John Price
1:05:42 Willie & Eugene Jam at Sonny Crup's Place "Willie Brown Blues" Nathan East, Frank Frost, John "Juke" Logan*, Ry Cooder, Joe Seneca, John Price, Jim Dickinson Crossroads OST
1:11:37 Frances Leavin' Keyboards & guitar
1:14:54 Eugene's Heartbreak "Feelin' Bad Blues" Ry Cooder Alt. Version on the "Crossroads OST"
1:20:23 Eugene & Willie Waiting at the crossroad, meeting with the devil Electric Slide Guitar Solo Ry Cooder, Arlen Roth
1:24:22 Introducing: "Jack Butler" !!! "Butler's Bag" Steve Vai, Ry Cooder, Jorge Calderon*, Jim Keltner Alt. Version on "The Elusive Light and Sound, Vol. 1"
1:25:07 Second Song in the "Hell's Pub" "Somebody's Callin' My Name" Arnold McCuller, Bobby King, Sam King, Willie Green, Ry Cooder Alt. Version on the "Crossroads OST"
1:27:11 "The Duel" "Head Cuttin' Duel" Steve Vai, Ry Cooder (Slide Guitar), Jorge Calderon*, Sonny Terry, Jim Keltner on "The Elusive Light and Sound, Vol. 1"
1:31:42 "The Duel," part.2 "Eugene's Trick Bag" Steve Vai on "The Elusive Light and Sound, Vol. 1"
1:34:07 Eugene's Victory Harmonica & Slide Guitar with Blues Band Steve Vai, Ry Cooder (Slide Guitar), Jorge Calderon*, Sonny Terry, Jim Keltner
1:35:12 Return to the crossroads "See You in Hell, Blind Boy" (extract) Alan Pasqua, Van Dyke Parks Crossroads OST
1:36:20 End Credits "Walkin' Away Blues" Ry Cooder, Sonny Terry Alt. Version on the "Crossroads OST"

Critical responseEdit

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.[18]

According to Ry Cooder, the film "went down the tubes".[12] The film managed a domestic total gross of $5,839,031.[1]

As of 2021, the film had a 75% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes from 16 reviews.[19]

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.[20]

Awards and nominationsEdit

Year Event Award Category Nomination Result Ref.
1986 Flanders International Film Festival Ghent Georges Delerue Prize Best Original Music Ry Cooder Won [21][22]


  1. ^ a b Crossroads at Box Office Mojo
  2. ^ Van Gelder, Lawrence (14 March 1986). "Happy Ending for a Former Blues Singer". The New York Times. p. C8.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ Horn, John (31 Aug 1985). "Focus Plots Happy Beginnings: Focus 1985". Los Angeles Times. p. sd_e1.
  5. ^ a b Ebert, Roger (16 Mar 1986). "Director Walter Hill Turns Movies into Myths". Chicago Sun-Times. p. 7.
  6. ^ Film credits.
  7. ^ Goldstein, Patrick (28 July 1985). "Pop Eye: Ry Cooder Takes Blues to the 'Crossroads' Pop Eye". Los Angeles Times. p. t65.
  8. ^ a b Schweiger, Daniel (December 1996). "Partners in Crime". Film Score Monthly. Vol. 1, no. 76. p. 17.
  9. ^ a b JD Nash (12 March 2020). "10 Things You Didn't Know About the Film 'Crossroads'". American Blues Scene. Retrieved 22 June 2021.
  10. ^ Pond, Steve (6 February 1986). "Too Much Springsteen". The Washington Post. p. C7.
  11. ^ Goldstein, Patrick (21 March 1986). "Joe Seneca Arrives at His Moment of Truth". Los Angeles Times. p. I1.
  12. ^ a b Milward, John (20 December 1987). "Lettin' it slide: Guitarist Ry Cooder won't follow rock trends". Chicago Tribune. p. C28.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g Arlen Roth. "Crossroads". Arlen Roth's website. Retrieved 22 June 2021.
  14. ^ a b c Jonathan Graham (30 April 2019). "'Crossroads' and Its Unsung Guitar Hero, Arlen Roth". Guitar World. Retrieved 22 June 2021.
  15. ^ "The Elusive Light and Sound (2001) - liner notes". Steve Vai's website.
  16. ^ a b c Eric Kirkland (17 June 2021). "Tracking down Steve Vai's elusive "Crossroads" Jackson – the most famous guitar that was never heard". Guitar World. Retrieved 22 June 2021.
  17. ^ Arlen Roth; Ry Cooder (1985), "Crossroads Ist Original Main Duel, Arlen Roth and Ry Cooder 1985", SoundCloud
  18. ^ Mathews, Jack (Mar 14, 1986). "FILM CLIPS: ARGENTINE 'STORY' WITH NO LANGUAGE BARRIERS". Los Angeles Times. p. I1.
  19. ^ "Crossroads". Rotten Tomatoes. Archived from the original on 2012-02-18. Retrieved 2012-02-10.
  20. ^ Ebert, Roger (14 March 1986). "Crossroads :: Reviews". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on 2012-10-09. Retrieved 2021-01-11.
  21. ^ "Crossraods Awards". Retrieved February 27, 2019.
  22. ^ "Winner & Jury 1985–2012 Flandres International Film Festival Ghent". Archived from the original on August 3, 2009. Retrieved February 27, 2019.

External linksEdit