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Music Movie Review: "Devil at the Crossroads" Demystifies Robert Johnson

Directed by Brian Oakes.

Robert Johnson, the famous, and somewhat infamous, blues singer-songwriter died at 27 years-old on August 16, 1938, becoming the first official member of the 27 Club. Rising from an impoverished southern family to one of the most famous blues musicians of America, there was little known about Johnson- his mysterious background mixed with extremely talented abilities fueled whisperings and theories, eventually forming into the tale Johnson became known for. Rumour has it, Johnson met with the devil at a deep southern crossroads, and exchanged his soul for musical genius- and at 27, the devil took what he had been promised.

Devil at the Crossroads attempts to unveil the mystery behind the elusive figure. With only two known photos of the man, information was scarce- but Oakes manages to pull together everyone currently alive who has some sort of connection to the late musician. Gathering blues historians, musicians influenced by Johnson, and even his grandson, Devil at the Crossroads stitches together fact and fiction to complete the patchwork quilt that is the legacy of Robert Johnson.

Growing up in an unstable family with absent, unsupportive, or abusive father figures, Johnson found a home in blues music. Spending the majority of his early years as an extremely average guitarist, the musician reached adolescence and began travelling from town-to-town collecting dimes for his sidewalk performances.

The 1920s deep south was a hostile place for Black families in general, never mind a travelling Black blues musician. Growing up in America's Bible Belt pushed conformity and Christian-heavy music- the introduction of blues was seen as a rebellious, sinful, and devilish temptation only enjoyed by bar-dwelling ne'er-do-wells. Naturally, this caused Johnson a butt load of trouble, eventually costing him a wife, child, and multiple relationships. Haunted by the traumas that followed him like a tall, dark shadow- the musician picked up drinking and womanizing habits to help cope, as Johnson was determined to push forwards. When he was suddenly gifted with the guitar playing skills of a blues master, his name became noteworthy- and just before his big break, the artist mysteriously fell ill, and passed away at age 27.

Halting at a short 48 minutes, the Netflix Remastered original explores what little information is available about the ghostly icon through interviews and beautiful sketchbook-style animations, then vanishes into the night- leaving us with just enough to piece together the image of a talented but troubled young blues musician, tragically taken much too soon.


~ I'm giving Devil at the Crossroads 5/5 stars. This documentary illuminates the mysterious life of one of blues music's largest icons, without having many substantial facts to work from. The animations are beautiful, and it warns us once again of the hauntingly familiar "troubled artist taken too soon" series. ~


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