What do the Rolling Stones’ “Love in Vain,” Cream’s “Crossroads,” and the Blues Brothers’ “Sweet Home Chicago” have in common? Along with many more, these three blues standards were written by the most important musician whose name you might not recognize: Delta blues guitarist Robert Johnson.
The latest in Netflix’s ReMastered series of original music documentaries, Devil at the Crossroads: A Robert Johnson Story, weaves the story of the mysterious bluesman together with the legacy of his influence. Brief but admirably thorough, the film is a must-see for rock fans searching to see how deep their genre really goes.
Robert Johnson (1911-1938) was, by all accounts, a novice guitar player in early 1930s Mississippi—until he suddenly disappeared without a trace. A year later, he reappeared without explanation as an absolute blues prodigy, outplaying legends like Son House in juke joints around the Delta. The suspicious speed of Johnson’s improvement, mixed with the superstition that blues was the “Devil’s music,” led to the emergence of the now-famous legend: Johnson had gone down to a crossroads at midnight and sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for miraculous talent.
During his short and tumultuous life, Johnson penned multiple blues standards, innovated a revolutionary guitar technique, and bent the Delta style by incorporating elements of vaudeville, ragtime, and folk music. Though he’s now considered one of the greatest blues musicians to ever live, Johnson remained quite unknown in his lifetime. He recorded only 29 distinct songs over two sessions in 1936 and 1937 before his murder in 1938 (he was allegedly poisoned by a jealous husband—what a way to go!). In the decades since, as documentation and subsequent reports emerged, researchers have been able to cobble together a partial account of Johnson and his life. This is the starting point for ReMastered: Devil at the Crossroads.
Director Brian Oakes needed to take an old, gap-filled story and present it in an interesting and compelling way. To do this, the film leans heavily on animation, dramatized footage, and interview voiceovers. Initially, the animation appears an ill-fitted medium for a hundred-year-old story about the Delta blues, but it ends up doing a competent job of telling a story with few clear and credible details, much less actual video or photographic records. Among the interview subjects that the film uses to tell the story are Taj Mahal, Keith Richards, and a slew of cultural, musical, and historical academics. This is much to its benefit, as the use of a dramatic narrator might have cheapened the visual style. The animation and interview voiceover balance each other quite well in this way.
In its focus on Johnson’s life story, the film falls short in its attention to the songs themselves, which remain tangential to the bluesman’s biography. Oakes does use several lyrics as jumping-off points to allow academics to give historical and cultural context, and top-notch audio engineering works overtime to push Johnson’s story forward and keep viewers engaged. Still, Oakes seems reluctant to allow any song to play for more than a few seconds before interrupting it. The result is that much of the music fades into a generic “Delta blues” soundtrack that misses opportunities to let certain songs breathe. It’s not always clear what you’re listening to, which would be a handicap on any music documentary. This complaint is largely preferential, as the film’s primary focus is on biographically exploring and conveying the life of Robert Johnson.
Considering its short runtime of only 48 minutes, the film’s due emphasis on Johnson’s musical and cultural legacy is impressive. Supernatural or not, Johnson’s instrumental and songwriting talents revolutionized blues music and set the course for musical innovations that would ripple down through generations of musicians. Oakes traces Johnson’s legacy from Muddy Waters and the advent of electric blues to figures like Robert Plant, Jimi Hendrix, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and other forebears of rock who cite Johnson’s influence.
In the film, award-winning blues singer-songwriter Keb’ Mo’ says it best: “Robert Johnson wakes up the genius in everyone, and his music speaks to all of us.” Without Johnson’s music, it’s safe to say that rock music would likely be radically different today. But Johnson remains important culturally as well as musically: his tragic personal life, rambling ways, and prodigious talent epitomize many pillars of blues storytelling and form foundations for the narrative conventions of Beatnik and Americana culture. Ultimately, Johnson’s story continues through this dispersion, distortion, and evolution.
With ReMastered: Devil at the Crossroads, Brian Oakes and Netflix deserve much credit for renewing public interest in Robert Johnson, as shown by an immediate spike of more than 300% in Google searches and a reinvigorated dialogue on social media. Netflix called upon Oakes to shed light on Johnson’s mysterious life, and his film does so with comprehension and style. Further, Oakes monumentalizes Johnson at the foot of a mountain of music made with his influence. This attention to the bluesman’s legacy means that Devil at the Crossroads will captivate fans of jazz, rock, country, pop, and beyond.
It’s well known just how much music grew from the roots of the blues, but even origin stories need a beginning. For the blues, Robert Johnson is that beginning, and for his continuing influence, there’s no end in sight.
Check out the trailer for the documentary below. You can watch ReMastered: Devil at the Crossroads: A Robert Johnson Story on Netflix here.
ReMastered: Devil At The Crossroads – Official Trailer