As we celebrate the 60th birthday (Nov. 4) of actor Ralph Macchio, most will remember him getting his leg swept in the Karate Kid franchise. But Macchio has had a long film career, one in which he also did some sweeping up in a guitar battle for his soul in the 1986 movie Crossroads.
At this point in his career, just two years removed from The Karate Kid‘s Daniel LaRusso and three years from The Outsiders‘ Johnny Cade, Macchio was definitely on the rise in Hollywood when he took on the role of Eugene Martone, a 17-year-old Juilliard guitar prodigy obsessed with the blues.
Screenwriter John Fusco revealed to American Blues Scene that Macchio was chosen over Sean Penn and Tom Cruise, who had both shown interest and that the actor had passed on Back to the Future to take the role of young Eugene, who seeks out Willie Brown, an elderly musician (Joe Seneca) who had allegedly played with legendary bluesman Robert Johnson being held at a minimum security hospital.
Brokering a deal for a lost Robert Johnson song in return for breaking him out and helping him settle some business in Mississippi, Eugene and Willie hit the road. And while their journey takes them through some juke joints and involves a few scrapes along the way, it does eventually land the duo right at the legendary crossroads where Johnson sold his soul to the devil, and apparently Willie had a debt to pay as well.
Eventually agreeing to a guitar battle with the Devil’s ringer guitarist, Eugene is ready to put his lessons learned to the test, fighting not only for Willie’s soul, but his own as well. But this would be no easy chore, especially when we find out the Devil’s axeman is none other than Jack Butler, played by the very much up-and-coming guitarist at the time, Steve Vai. Up to that point, Vai was mostly known for his work with Frank Zappa and in Alcatrazz, but eventually wowed music fans further playing alongside David Lee Roth in the former Van Halen singer’s solo band.
So how did Vai end up in the film? Well, it almost didn’t happen. The film’s music composer Ry Cooder was the one to initially reach out to him, but as Vai recalls, he initially shot it down. “They needed a hot rod guitar player for this guitar-duel scene. I read the script, built a duel concept and we recorded it,” he explains. “After the director [Walter Hill] had met me and heard the recording, he asked me if I’d be interested in being in the film. I told him no at first, but then I read the script again and felt that a certain side of my personality could relate to the character of Jack Butler. Celluloid history.”
Fusco recalled, “I ran into Jimmy Page in a bar in the West Indies years later. True story. He told me how badly he wanted that role. We hung out for days and he played his acoustic guitar in me and my wife’s cabana while he was writing new songs.” But it was Vai who was chosen as selected by Cooder. “I admit that I was thrown and confused, but it all became clear very quickly that Ry knew what he was doing and it was the best choice of all,” said the screenwriter.
What ensues onscreen starts off as a slide-guitar battle, but emerged into something melding blues and metal guitar stylings, eventually ending with Macchio’s Eugene going back to his classical training and his lightning quick hands to defeat the blistering, audience-engaging riffing of Vai’s Butler.
But did Vai actually lose to an actor just learning to play guitar? Not really. In the name of movie magic, it’s actually Vai who dubbed Macchio’s composition while the actor mimed the parts on his guitar. The guitar battle scene also includes contributions from Cooder, Jorge Calderon, harmonica player Sonny Terry and legendary drummer Jim Keltner.
Vai also added another piece of his own to the film — his guitar. The red superstrat was revealed by Guitar World to have been a custom Charvel, and the original instrument from the film now has been signed by Vai and is part of the Hard Rock Cafe company collection.
Speaking with Guitar World, Vai stated, “I think people responded to Jack Butler because I was projecting so much intensity into the character. Kids respond to that kind of thing. Take a look at most video games, blockbuster movies, contemporary rock record releases, rock videos, etc. The majority of them are centered around sex and violence. Those elements light up the senses.”
“It’s a frightening proposal to look into the future and imagine the type of stimulating, psyche-manipulating sensory output we will be eating. But I also think there are many socially redeeming and uplifting things out there, too,” he adds. “But back to Earth. I believe the music in Crossroads and the whole idea of the duel was energetic and well laid out, and kids respond to that, too.”
As for Macchio, yes, the actor did actually play guitar in the movie though some of his parts were dubbed in. Director Walter Hill hired guitarist Arlen Roth to teach the actor to play, showing him a variety of techniques and essentially getting him to the point where he could mimic a majority of what was played. Fusco does make sure to qualify, “I want to emphasize that Ralph did much of his own playing and it was impressive. He is a smart and diligent kid. Wait, he’s not a kid any more, but he still looks the same.”
Revisit this epic onscreen guitar battle from Crossroads below.