Different movies hit us at different times in our lives for different reasons. When I was in my 20s, I loved this movie because of all the neat blues guitar jams. I even bought a bluesman’s hat similar to the one Ralph Macchio wore. In my 40s, I still love it for Ry Cooder’s soundtrack, but it also has somewhat of a pro-singles message.
Macchio plays Eugene Martone, a gifted classical guitarist who’s recently become obsessed with the blues artists of the 1930s and 1940s. An opening montage shows him playing along with a Robert Johnson cassette (I love the 1980s) while surrounded by books about his contemporaries. Through some old-school library research (I miss microfiche!), he finds Willie Brown, a great harmonica player from that era (and totally fictionalized for the purposes of the film), living in a retirement home in Harlem.
Eugene breaks him out of the home and brings him down to Mississippi with a promise from Willie that he’ll teach him a lost Johnson song. It turns out Willie once sold his soul to the devil for the ability to play a mean blues harp (like Johnson was rumored to) and wants his soul back. Without giving too many spoilers, Eugene has to engage in a showdown with a devil-backed guitarist played by the great Steve Vai, and well, it just rocks.
The movie is pro-single for two reasons: 1) it focuses on the growing friendship between Martone and Brown, which is somewhat reminiscent of Daniel LaRusso’s relationship with Mr. Miyagi in Macchio’s most famous feature, The Karate Kid; and 2) there is somewhat of a romantic subplot; Eugene has a brief dalliance with Frances, a runaway the two meet on the road. The twist is that she has to leave toward the end for her final destination, Los Angeles. And as Brown puts it, “There’s no goodbyes on the road.” It also fits the film that the two men reach the underworld without their third wheel.
This film handles the romantic subplot in a realistic fashion, and supports a personal philosophy of mine: relationships don’t have to last a long time, and sometimes, they’re not meant to. In this case, there was chemistry between Frances for a brief time, and they parted. He’s sad about it at first (“blues is just about a good man feeling bad over the woman who left”), but he gets over it quickly enough to continue the journey.