Friday, April 29, 2005

BACK TO THE CROSSROADS


I just watched a movie that I hadn't seen since the 1980s -- Crossroads, a 1986 picaresque blues fable and Voodoo allegory with echoes of Huckleberry Finn starring Joe Seneca and Ralph Macchio.

Seneca plays Willie Brown -- you might remember Robert Johnson mentioning him in his song "Crossroads" -- a cantankerous old bluesman wasting away in a New York City nursing home. Macchio plays Eugene -- later dubbed "Lightning Boy" by Willie. He's a nerdy Julliard student studying classical guitar, even though his true love is the blues. He locates Willie in a quixotic search for a mysterious "lost" Robert Johnson song. Willie agrees -- if young Eugene helps break him out of the nursing home and takes him back to Mississippi.

Besides Seneca's performance, the music is the main draw. It was put together by Ry Cooder. Sonny Terry plays the harmonica parts. The movie includes a performance by Frank Frost, whose band includes Otis Taylor on lead guitar. (But I'm not sure it's the same Colorado Otis Taylor of When Negroes Walked the Earth/White African fame. He sure doesn't look like the Otis I've seen and his bio doesn't mention Frank Frost or Crossroads.)Frost sings a jumping version of "Cotton Needs Pickin'"

The movie culminates in a "head-cutting" contest between Lightning Boy (Cooder's actually playing guitar) and a soul-selling hotshot played by metal monster Steve Vai. At stake are the souls of both Lightning Boy and Willie, who back in his youth signed at contract at the crossroads with the Voodoo god Legba. It's a cosmic showdown introduced by a surreal gospel quartet (featuring Bobby King)singing "Somebody's Callin' My Name." When the contest gets going the stage is graced by a sexy dancer (Gretchen Palmer) wildly prancing around the stage in a slinky black dress and red flower in her hair. She's not identified as such in the credits, but those with eyes to see will recognize her as Erzulie, Voodoo goddess of love.

Sure it's corny and you know who's going to win. But it's an enticing little melodrama.

Crossroads has been unavailable on DVD since it was quietly released last summer in that format. For the last few years if you asked for Crossroads at a video store, they'd think you were talking about that Brittney Spears movie of the same name. The real Crossroads is available at Netflix too. And Cooder's soundtrack still is available also, although it unfortunately doesn't have the head-cutting guitar showdown.

Hey Warner Brothers/Rhino -- isn't it about time for a deluxe 20th Anniversary Edition of the Crossroads soundtrack?

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