After featuring heavily in multiple Karate Kid movies and countless flashbacks across three seasons of Cobra Kai, the 1984 All Valley Karate Tournament match between Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence today feels as exhaustively scrutinized as the Zapruder film.
Yet imagine a version of this iconic showdown where Ralph Macchio trades guitar licks instead of karate kicks with a demonic guitarist instead of pretty boy William Zabka — all in a hellish roadhouse with Patrick Swayze nowhere in sight.
This is the climax of Crossroads, a 1986 film directed by Walter Hill (The Warriors, 48 Hours). Today, search results for the film are buried under ones for the 2002 Britney Spears vehicle (and new Jonathan Franzen bestseller) of the same name; however, the 1986 Crossroads, which bombed upon release, is a worthwhile alternate-universe sequel to The Karate Kid where Daniel-san trades his gi for a guitar and proves his heavy-metal mettle in order to win his soul instead of a trophy (and Elisabeth Shue).
A single song is thin material to base a feature-length movie on. (Ever seen one of The Gambler TV movies?) For his bachelor’s thesis, screenwriting student John Fusco ingeniously combined the “selling your soul to the devil for talent and fame” storyline of Robert Johnson’s titular 1936 blues tune (famously covered by Eric Clapton with Cream in the ‘60s) with a helping of “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” to produce a screenplay that went into production at Columbia Pictures while he was still in college. By landing the Karate Kid himself for the lead role, producers were no doubt hoping they had a similar-sized hit on their hands.
Photo: ©Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection
We meet Eugene (Macchio), a gifted classical-guitar student at Juilliard whose professors are dismayed by his obsession with Delta blues music. Eugene discovers that the “Willie Brown” character referenced in Johnson’s “Crossroad Blues” isn’t just a real, harmonica-wailing septuagenarian living in a nearby nursing home; he may also be the last person alive who knows a legendary lost song by Johnson that Eugene hopes to record and ride to blues stardom.
Joe Seneca (later to become a Spike Lee regular) portrays Willie in the wizened mentor role similar to the one Mr. Miyagi occupied. Unlike Miyagi, whose refinished deck and waxed convertible were merely perks that came along with dispensing invaluable life lessons, the irascible Willie is only looking out for himself — specifically, his mortal soul, which he, too, sold at the crossroads for a music career that never blossomed. Seneca garnered acclaim for the role, infusing Willie with wicked humor along with the emotional scars of a life suffered under the prejudices of the South. Just like Eugene’s electrified Telecaster, the movie crackles to life when he’s onscreen, hazing his youthful counterpart (who gets the blues handle “Lightnin’ Boy”) and agonizing over his eternal fate.
The bulk of Crossroads is an episodic road movie as Eugene breaks Willie out of the nursing home and the two “hobo it” down to Mississippi, where Willie promises to teach Eugene the lost song but secretly plans to renegotiate the terms of his Eternal Contract. Frequently underused in films like Lost Boys and Twister, Jami Gertz gets perhaps her best screen role as a streetwise runaway who can match wits with Willie but falls for the innocent Eugene and finally teaches him the true meaning of the blues. It’s melodramatic at turns but full of enjoyably gritty touches from Hill, great dialogue and an authentic score supervised by slide guitarist par excellence Ry Cooder.
In the film’s final act, Willie and Eugene finally reach the literal crossroads where Willie made his deal decades earlier. Eugene foolishly agrees to a double-or-nothing deal with Ol’ Scratch and suddenly finds himself “cuttin’ heads” in a supernatural duel with the devil’s ringer (played by renowned guitar hero Steve Vai, magnetic in a wordless role that reportedly landed him consideration for the Lestat part in Interview With A Vampire).
Cooder remembered director Hill asking him to score the duel “like a gunfight,” and the 10-minute sequence is indeed thrilling. Willie’s regret and dread, palpable throughout the film, are finally revealed to be 100% legitimate and we feel the stakes as Eugene’s hands fly desperately over the fretboard.
And then, just like in The Karate Kid, when all appears lost and our heroes are facing sure defeat after Vai sweeps the leg with his satanic soloing, it’s Eugene’s one-in-a-million callback to a technique from an earlier scene that brings salvation — and lands the knockout blow that may not have had mass audiences cheering but delivers catharsis nonetheless. Not bad, Lightnin’, not bad.
Todd Wicks is a resident of Troy, Michigan, home of ‘70s rock legends Stillwater. He currently records and performs with his band All Over The Shop.
Where to stream Crossroads