In early 1984, director Walter Hill contacted Arlen Roth—guitarist, columnist and co-creator of the Hot Licks instructional video series—about a new film he was about to make starring Ralph Macchio.
It was to be centered on the blues and present a modern twist on the mythology and legend tied to the late Robert Johnson.
The problem was Macchio couldn’t play guitar. Roth, it turns out, was the man for the job. The guitarist, who was hired as the film's musical consultant, also was tasked with showing Macchio how to play guitar while creating guitar parts for the film that the young actor could mime to.
Over the next few months, Roth visited Macchio’s home in Long Island, New York, four days a week. He taught him electric and acoustic blues techniques, including fingerpicking and slide. He even threw in some classical. The young actor was determined to actually play the guitar in the movie; however, Roth knew this would be impossible.
He was keen to just get Macchio good enough to fake the parts recorded by Roth, Ry Cooder and Bill Kanengiser. When production began, many of the film’s sets were still yet to be finalized. After filming on location one evening in Greenville, Mississippi, Roth, who was fascinated by the local music scene, decided to sit in at a nearby juke joint and took Ralph along.
Macchio was so impressed watching Arlen jam onstage that night with Frank Frost and Son Thomas (widely regarded as two of the foremost American Delta blues musicians of their generation). He wanted the same kind of scene written into the movie. Cooder, who served as the film's musical director, agreed and even insisted Frost and Thomas be included in the film, which they were.
Hill envisioned the film's climax to be like a boxing match, or a blues version of The Karate Kid (ironically, also starring Macchio). With that in mind, the original guitar "duel" was recorded; it was a battle between Roth and Cooder, with the plan that Cooder would appear on screen in the role of Jack Butler.
As the film progressed, however, the producers were growing less keen on this idea and wanted someone else for the part, much to the disappointment of Cooder. Nonetheless, Cooder was still musical director and therefore was tasked with finding a replacement.
Keith Richards, Frank Zappa and Stevie Ray Vaughan were briefly considered for the role, but ultimately with the producers keen on capitalizing on the mid-Eighties “guitar shred” boom, Steve Vai was cast and was quickly able to put his own stamp on the part, even writing additional music for the film, including his work on "Eugene's Trick Bag," an updated classical piece, at the film's climax.
It is largely based on Niccolo Paganini's Caprice #5, which can be seen in the top clip below. This was skillfully connected to the story, as according to myth, much like Robert Johnson, Paganini apparently sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical skills. Vai and Roth became lifelong friends as a result of working together on the film. However, Vai's appointment was initially disappointing to Roth, who felt that with Vai's inclusion permanently dated the movie, rather than letting it be more timeless, as the original script intended.
Around this time, Roth had been working on the project for more than five months. However, Columbia Pictures had yet to sign his contract. He continued to create music for additional scenes and re-shoots, fully expecting the proper credit for the music he had written and recorded, but he was now being overlooked on the set and even thrown out of recording studios when he was expecting to be there to work on guitar parts for Macchio.
When the film was released in early 1986, the songwriting and performance credits weren't what had been promised to Roth, and to this day his involvement on the project has gone largely unrecognized. Not by Vai, however. Vai has publicly mentioned and praised Roth’s work on the film.
“Ry did a lot of the other stuff with Arlen Roth, who for some reason didn't get proper credit in the film," Vai told Guitar World in 1987. "Arlen worked very hard on the project. He taught Ralph Macchio how to hold and finger the guitar to make it look realistic. And he recorded a lot of the slide guitar parts throughout the film, along with Ry."
Despite some broken promises and disappointment, today, Roth doesn’t appear to look back with any resentment, having recently stated in an interview: “I was the one who really created the guitar parts for the majority of the film. Bill Kanegiser did the classical playing throughout, and by the ending 'duel,' we were ALL involved in that music! Me, Ry, Vai and Bill, all part of the same guitar solos! I've still got the guitar from the film, along with many special other things they did for me, such as a special Crossroads strap, etc.
It was a amazing ride, and despite some of the negatives, such as the credits mess-up, it was a personal and artistic experience I wouldn't trade for anything. Truly a once-in-a-lifetime adventure!”
An additional example of Arlen’s music, reworked for the film can be heard in the second clip below, titled “Landslide." It's originally from Roth's 1979 album, Guitarist.
For more information, visit Arlenroth.com.
Jonathan Graham is an ACM UK graduate based in London studying under the likes of Guthrie Govan and Pete Friesen. He is the creator of ForgottenGuitar.com, a classic-guitar media website, and is completing his debut album, Protagonist, due for release in 2016. Updates also can be found at Graham's YouTube channel.