Like many other movie viewers, I was first introduced to Ralph Macchio when he starred in The Karate Kid in 1984. I had a friend who completely obsessed over this so-called “kid” (he was actually like 25 when that film came out). After his success defeating the Cobra Kai, his next big lead role came about a year and a half later in a film with some similar themes to his crane-kicking box office hit. This time, though, he was learning blues guitar instead of wax-on wax-off in 1986’s Crossroads.
Macchio plays Eugene Martone, a student studying classical guitar at the Juilliard School for the Performing Arts. Much to his instructor’s chagrin, though, Eugene has an unhealthy obsession with the blues, especially legendary guitarist Robert Johnson, who supposedly sold his soul to the devil at a lonely crossroads. Because he reads just about everything on Johnson, Eugene eventually learns that a one-time associate of the guitarist named Willie Brown (Joe Seneca) lives in a nearby hospital. Eugene ends up getting a job at the hospital as a janitor in order to get the chance to talk to the old bluesman. At first, Willie wants nothing to do with Eugene, but he soon sees the protege as his ticket out of the hospital. Promising to share with Eugene a lost song that Robert Johnson never got to record, he gets Eugene to help bust him out.
Now, the two hit the road, headed back to the land of the delta blues. Along the way, Willie starts to teach Eugene the things he needs to know if he wants to be a real blues man. They also team up with a aspiring dancer named Frances (Jami Gertz) trying to hitchhike her way to LA. It seems, though, that Willie is actually trying to get back to the crossroads to try and call off the deal he made with the devil many years ago.
As I hinted at earlier, it’s kind of hard to watch this film and not have flashbacks to The Karate Kid. It’s a coming of age story with a young man learning skills from a much older gentleman. With the same young leading man you could’ve just called this one The Blues Guitar Kid. Though the relationship here is not a strong as the Miyagi / Daniel-san dynamic, Macchio and Seneca still make a solid team. Seneca is a bit more grizzled and cantankerous than Pat Morita ever was, but Macchio pretty much approaches his role exactly the same as he did in The Karate Kid. Jami Gertz also ends up following in the footsteps of KK’s Elisabeth Shue as the love interest who isn’t given that much to do. Actually, Gertz’s character does do something that is very important to Eugene’s development as a bluesman, but the moment doesn’t quite have the power I think the filmmakers had intended. Gertz is still utterly charming in the role, though.
The story itself is quite simple and unfolds in a pretty straightforward way. The third act does take a bit of a supernatural turn, though, that has a great deal of potential but comes across as a bit of an afterthought. We see Willie encounter the devil at the crossroads once again which leads to a guitar battle between Eugene and another guitarist played by Steve Vai. Had director Walter Hill put a bit more effort into laying the foundation for this climax I might have bought into it more. He could’ve had Willie haunted by images of this devil character throughout the film, but instead it kinda comes from nowhere. The thing that frustrates me the most is that I’m totally down for the idea, I just think it was sloppily executed.
On a whole, though, Crossroads is an engaging film. It succeeds for many of the same reasons The Karate Kid does; it’s strongest moments being those that focus on the relationship between young man and his older mentor. Oh, and it has a great soundtrack! It’s an 80’s movie, after all, that goes without saying.