Hellhound On My Trail: Walter Hill’s CROSSROADS (Columbia 1986)

‘Well the blues had a baby/and they named it rock and roll” –

Muddy Waters

Hi, my name’s Gary, and I’m a bluesoholic! Whether it’s Deep South Delta or Electric Chicago, distilled in Great Britain or Sunny California, the blues has always been the foundation upon which rock’n’roll was built. Yet there aren’t a lot of films out there depicting this totally original American art form. One I viewed recently was 1986’s CROSSROADS, directed by another American original whose work I enjoy, Walter Hill.

Hill was responsible for cult classics filled with violence and laced with humor, like HARD TIMES (with Charles Bronson as a 1930’s bare knuckles brawler), the highly stylized THE WARRIORS , the gritty Western THE LONG RIDERS, and SOUTHERN COMFORT (a kind of MOST DANGEROUS GAME On The Bayou). He scored box office gold with the 1982 action-comedy 48 HRS, making a movie star out of SNL’s Eddie Murphy (for better or worse), but his  follow up STREETS OF FIRE (a “rock and roll fable”) tanked at theaters.

Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues (1911-1938)

CROSSROADS is a different type of Walter Hill film. While keeping the ‘buddy movie’ aspect and the humor, Hill tones down the violence quotient considerably to tell his tale, based somewhat loosely on the legend of Robert Johnson. the seminal Mississippi bluesman who allegedly “sold his soul to the devil” to achieve fame and fortune. Johnson’s output of music recorded before his death in 1938 at age 27 consists of just 29 songs, including future blues standards “Come On In My Kitchen”, “Dust My Broom”, “Love in Vain”, ‘Ramblin’ On My Mind”, “Sweet Home Chicago”, and of course “Crossroad Blues”.

CROSSROADS is about a quest to discover Johnson’s missing thirtieth song, as a young Julliard student named Eugene Martone, who wants to be a bluesman, finds elderly Willie Brown (aka Blind Dog Fulton), Johnson’s former harmonica player, in an old folks home. Martone is obsessed with finding the lost song, and the crusty, crotchety Willie agrees to help him, if he’ll help Willie escape from the home. He does, and they go ‘hoboing’ down the backroads headed to the Mississippi Delta, where Willie claims he, like Robert Johnson, once sold his soul to the devil, and now wants it back!

Along the way, they meet young runaway Frances, and go on the adventure of a lifetime, as Eugene (dubbed by Willie ‘The Lighting Kid’) learns what it’s really like to live the life of an itinerant  bluesman. Willie finally makes it back to the crossroads, coming face to face with The Devil himself, and a mystical, mojo-fueled guitar duel takes place between Eugene and The Devil’s own shredder (demonically played by guitar whiz Steve Vai) for both their immortal souls…

Joe Seneca is marvelous as cranky Willie, full of piss and vinegar, and makes a totally believable bluesman. Ralph Macchio, who I usually find quite annoying, as Eugene is good as well. Jami Gertz (LESS THAN ZERO) is appealing as the runaway Frances. Joe Morton (BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET) is The Devil’s Assistant, while Robert Judd (who acted with Seneca in the original Broadway production of MA RAINY’S BLACK BOTTOM) makes an evil, leering Devil (here called Scratch). And it’s a real treat to see veteran Harry Carey Jr. pop up in the brief role of the bartender in a redneck country joint!

Slide guitarist extraordinaire Ry Cooder contributes the rootsy soundtrack, aided immensely by the harp blowing of legendary bluesman Sonny Terry. Other musicians contributing include Frank Frost (harp), Otis Taylor (guitar), and Jim Keltner (drums). Walter Hill has crafted a totally likable musical fairy tale with CROSSROADS, a must-see for lovers of the blues.

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