The urgent, overwhelming reason to go without delay to "Crossroads" (selected theaters) is Joe Seneca as Blind Dog Fulton, "possibly the finest blues harmonica man to come out of Mississippi." You're probably not going to get acting any better than this if you wait until you're as old as . . . well, as old as Blind Dog himself, and he's 80.
Of course, if you're a blues fan, you might go to hear the love and care that Ry Cooder has taken with "Crossroads' " music, so that the tortured-sounding voice of the legendary Robert Johnson is done proper justice, or to hear Delta bluesman Frank Frost and The Wonders, or Sonny Terry, or John (Juke) Logan, or Seneca, or the amazing Cooder himself.
"Crossroads" needs a leap of faith to swallow it whole, to buy its Faust-like premise of a musician's pact with the devil played against the realism of a contemporary road movie, but director Walter Hill lays out reasons enough to make us want to make that leap. (See related story in Jack Mathews' Film Clips on Page 14.)
The first is the pungency of newcomer John Fusco's script, which resists every chance to smooth down the scratchy Blind Dog, incarcerated for shooting another bluesman decades ago under his real name, Willie Brown. Fusco makes young, Long Island-raised Eugene Martone (Ralph Macchio) a pretty hard pill to swallow at first, too; this cocky Juilliard-trained guitarist, not old enough to vote but dumb enough to call himself "a bluesman"--right to Willie's face. You can savor every second Seneca is on screen, but the spin he puts on his retort, "Long Island, the famous breeding ground for bluesmen," is wicked.
Like the boy or not, Willie is as eager to get out of this hospital/jail as Eugene is to get what the old man alone knows: Robert Johnson's unrecorded last song. With it, this downy classicist hopes to make his name in the blues world. And so, with a promise of the song once they reach Willie's native ground, Eugene manages to spring the irascible musician from his locked facility. The two head uneasily for Mississippi and a desolate crossroads where Willie, like Robert Johnson before him, sold his soul to the devil for a little piece of fame.
"Crossroads' " look is the second of its strong points: sepia sections of the '20s blending almost imperceptibly with muted footage of the present. Cinematographer John Bailey steers resolutely away from over-prettiness (this is not, in other words, the South of "The Color Purple") to strike a bleak, haunting tone, echoed by the spare eloquence of Jack Collis' production designs.
The heart of the film, of course, must be an exchange between man and boy, and our sense that Eugene has been allowed to feel, however glancingly, the pain that fuels the blues. Seneca and Macchio play this developing relationship delicately and well; the writing and direction never let Willie turn into a crusty but lovable curmudgeon; he's too flinty and principled about his music for that, which is exactly as he should be. For the pain of love, we add an abused young runaway, Frances (Jami Gertz), detouring however improbably from her target destination of Los Angeles to travel with them.
At one point, they're rousted as vagrants by two deputies and, finally, by a towering sheriff. What's nice about the scene is how it plays against expectation: These three larcenous bullies are all black. Surveying them, Willie says, "Cap'n, things seem changed in this county. Then again, they seem sorta the same." The "Cap'n" is the brilliance of the line, because it sounds the way you'd address a chain gang boss. When he was 16, screenwriter Fusco spent time traveling all over the South as a musician. He certainly listened well.
Next, Frances, Willie and Eugene hit a little Mississippi town whose color line runs down the middle of its dusty street as implacably as it did when Willie was last there 40 years ago. At this point, "Crossroads" really lifts into orbit. Playing together, Willie and Eugene (with Frank Frost and The Wonders) tear the roof off a black juke joint.
The problem is that the power of this number, and the painful beauty of the early-morning solo that follows it, virtually leaves the film nowhere else to go. We know that Willie, with one eye cocked on the afterlife, will have one last dealing for his soul with Scratch (the late Robert Judd), as well as with his assistant (Joe Morton, in far too short an appearance). And from every bit of folklore, as well as from "Crossroads' " own trailer, we can bet that a duel of some sort is shaping up.
But we don't feel the urgency or the potential danger that's riding on this final contest, flamboyantly well-staged though it is, and demoniac as Alcatrazz's guitarist Steve Vai looks as an opponent.
In some ways, this duel is irrelevant. "Crossroads" has made its point and certainly cast its spell much earlier. It isn't really about the devil and souls. It's about the blues, embodied by one pin-striped, string-tied, light-on-his-feet, grizzled harp player.