The legend of Mississippi blues master Robert Johnson has served as a fountainhead for generations of blues and rock musicians, as well as a powerful fable for the dark, often violent mysteries of delta blues. Johnson's mythic deal with the Devil, in exchange for his extraordinary musical gifts, has become a fixture in blues lore and an example of the enduring pull of superstitions that can be traced back to Mother Africa and Yoruba deities. Producer-director Walter Hill (The Long Riders, Streets of Fire) sought to put this uniquely American mystery on film, but when he was unable to secure a script devoted directly to Johnson himself, Hill bravely decided to proceed with a more oblique, allegorical story that retold the Satanic bargain through a fictionalized drama set in the present day. In this 1986 feature, the hero is Eugene, a classically trained guitar virtuoso pulled toward the earthier powers of blues. When he stumbles across a lost blues legend, Willie Brown (a real blues figure and Johnson peer known for his partnerships with Charley Patton and Son House, among others), Eugene begins an odyssey back to the delta country and the crossroads of the title, where both Willie and Johnson had traded their souls for blues power, to help the surviving bluesman renegotiate terms.
An opening sequence, shot in sepia-toned black and white, dramatizes Johnson's own supernatural encounter, as well as one of the bluesman's historic Texas recording sessions, and Hill's visuals combine with frequent collaborator Ry Cooder's reliably authentic slide guitar to offer a promising glimpse of cinematic conjury. Even the satanic villain--a grinning huckster named Scratch--honors the trickster figure familiar to African American superstitions, rather than a generic devil. Willie Brown (Joe Seneca) is likewise a convincing link to the blues past, but Hill's central casting choice--Ralph (The Karate Kid) Macchio--sacrifices all for marquee value, a Hobson's choice that casts a shadow of unintended parody across the film. Macchio's earlier character, not Scratch, haunts this film, and even a nifty duel between Eugene, his slashing fretwork supplied off-camera by Cooder, and Scratch's ax-wielding henchman, heavy metal virtuoso, and one-time Frank Zappa protégé Steve Vai, can't safely rescue the film. --Sam Sutherland