Robert Johnson: ‘Devil at Crossroads’ Doc on Netflix

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We’re addicted to modern mythology, whether it’s superheroes, conspiracy theories or retrofitting our dark tendencies via Game of Thrones. As the founding member of the “27 Club,” Robert Johnson is steeped in a myth that keeps him powerful and influential well over a century after his birth.

An early death, deals with the devil and mysterious origins are ripe to keep Johnson’s myth alive, but a bit of it gets unraveled with Netflix’s newest offering in the “ReMastered” series with the April 26 debut of Devil at the Crossroads. Building on John Hammond Jr.’s 1991 documentary, the 48-minute film pulls together the known facts and legends surrounding Johnson and is a fascinating look at that legacy. It’s particularly striking how legendary Johnson is considering he left behind only 29 tunes, many of which went unheard for years before the classic rock boom of the ’60s.

Related: 10 great Eric Clapton collaborations

The film lays out a succinct portrait of the times, the social influences, the impact of his music and the mysterious circumstances of his death, using musicians ranging from Keb’ Mo’ to the usual Johnson apostles: Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards, Taj Mahal, etc.

While the tale has been told, the vintage clips and fresh perspectives give the documentary a coherent message and new opinions to mull. The filmmakers posit “Hellhound on My Trail” as a political song, written about the lingering effects of slavery and racism; traditionally it has been viewed as a musing on the fate of Johnson’s soul. The Delta blues played by Johnson was considered the devil’s music; the fact that he played up his alleged deal with the devil only made him more sinister to his contemporaries. His influence played out through modern times, including musicians like Kurt Cobain. It’s unlikely to wane anytime soon.

Watch the trailer for Devil at the Crossroads

Mark Brown

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  1. Dr. Woodstock, RX
    #1 Dr. Woodstock, RX 27 April, 2019, 07:20

    Just visited the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation in Crystal Springs, Mississippi and then headed up the Delta Blues Trail to Clarksdale and the Crossroads.

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