Eugene Martone (Macchio) has a fascination for the blues while he studies classical guitar at the Juilliard School for Performing Arts in New York City. Researching blues and guitar music brings famed Robert Johnson’s mythically creative acclaim to his attention; especially intriguing are the legends surrounding exactly how Johnson became so talented, as well as a famed “missing song” that was lost, supposedly evermore, to the world.

In his quest to find this song, he discovers old newspaper archive clippings revealing that Johnson’s longtime friend, musician Willie Brown, is alive and incarcerated in a nearby minimum security hospital. Eugene goes to see him. After Willie denies several times that he is that Willie Brown, he finally admits his identity after hearing Eugene play some blues (though Willie notes that Eugene “plays with no soul”). Willie then says he knows the missing Robert Johnson tune in question but refuses to give it to Eugene unless the boy busts him out of the facility and gets him to Mississippi, where he has unfinished business to settle. Eugene agrees and they head south, but the boy soon realizes that Willie is constantly running minor scams such as claiming that he has more money than he actually has in order to cover their bus tickets. With no money, they end up “hoboing” from Memphis to rural Mississippi.

During their quest, Eugene and Willie experience the blues legacy of Robert Johnson first-hand, taking part in an impromptu jam session at a roadhouse (or “juke joint” as “Blind Dog” Willie puts it), where Eugene gets the nickname of “Lightning” because of his musical skill. Eugene is deeply impressed and his feelings of the authenticity of Willie being an old bluesman takes firm hold in his mind. A romantic interest surfaces in the guise of a hitchhiker, Frances (Jami Gertz), who follows them. She and Eugene end up sharing a tender moment in a hayloft. She soon thereafter becomes miffed at the mission at hand and abandons the two men, leaving Eugene saddened, but now with a true feeling for the blues, as he plays on an old Fender Telecaster guitar and a Pignose.

They ultimately reach their location in Mississippi: a rural crossroads in the middle of nowhere, where Willie reveals several secrets. There is no missing Johnson song for Eugene to learn, but Willie tells the boy that he has proven himself far beyond what learning any blues song could ever teach him. Willie also hints that his musical ability (specifically, the harmonica) and the musical ability of Robert Johnson came about because of deals with the devil made at this very location. The Devil himself (nicknamed “Scratch”) shows up and says that the contract for Willie’s soul is still valid, even if Willie is ultimately unsatisfied with how his life turned out.

Eugene, somewhat skeptical of the whole exchange and situation, steps into the conversation to help Willie. The Devil offers a challenge: If Eugene can come to a special concert and win a head-cutting guitar duel against his ringer guitarist (Steve Vai in the role of “Jack Butler”), then Willie gets his soul back. If Eugene loses, then Eugene’s soul is now forfeit. Still skeptical of everything, Eugene unwisely agrees to the deal, despite Willie’s protests. Willie and Eugene are transported to a music hall, where metal-blues guitar master Jack Butler, who also sold his soul for musical ability, is wowing the crowd with his prowess.

Eugene and Jack Butler begin their blistering guitar duel, and Eugene is eventually able to win the battle by falling back on his classical training and performing music that his opponent cannot match. Willie’s soul is free, and he and Eugene are transported back to Mississippi, where they start walking again, uncertain of the life ahead of them.

Starring – Ralph Macchio, Joe Seneca, Jami Gertz, Joe Morton
Director – Walter Hill
Screenplay – John Fusco

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