Saturday, September 13, 2008
And so ends one version of the life of Robert Johnson--my 40-year-old script admired by many over the decades, but criticized by some too for sentimentality. (I'd say in defense that I tried to portray a flawed man rather than a myth.) At any rate, Hellhound is now on-line for anyone to examine and decide for him/herself.
Eventually there were other attempts: Alan Greenberg's too-surreal Love In Vain (which appeared as a book but was never filmed), and the silly Crossroads picture, and the Blaxploitation Leadbelly movie (which I egotistically thought might have "borrowed" some ideas from my widely circulating script), and the more recent Johnson docudramas--they all had ideas worth considering, but none of them attempted to create a whole world and a thoroughly imagined life.
I may not have nailed it, but I did struggle to do justice to one amazing Bluesman's poorly documented, Depression-era history, and be as culturally/socially/linguistically accurate as a white man writing a third of a century later might be.
Was Johnson's life tragic? Or was he merely heroic and skillful, pathetic and foolish in equal measure? The two or three known photos of him are finally as confusing as the recorded memories of other musicians and (supposed) friends concerning his musical prowess and his sad early death.
Only the great 29 songs (in 40-some existing takes) and the mystery remain.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
The place is filling up, not yet at capacity--black people out from town or in from their sharecrop farms for the Saturday night dance. Betty Mae and Ralph sit in tense silence at a table between the dance floor and the bar. Robert is on the small bandstand beside the crowded dance floor.
JOHNSON: I 'uz thinkin', peoples--gettin' sho' nuff hot an' funky in here. Time to slow on down... time for some blues.
A few voiced objections from the dancers, but most are ready for a drink and a rest; these head for the bar.
JOHNSON: Could use a drink m'self. What say, Ralph?
ANGLE ON TABLE
Curtis registers displeasure, but then waves his agreement. He gets up and heads over to the bar to help Charles with the drinks.
ANGLE ON JOHNSON
He grins gleefully at getting the boss to work for him. Now he heaps insult on injury with the song he proceeds to play.
JOHNSON: All right, brothers an' sisters. I wrote this li'l thing for a' ol' frien'...
The song is his gentle "Honeymoon Blues," with such lyrics as these:
Betty Mae, Betty Mae, you shall be my wife some day (repeat)
I wants a sweet girl that will do anythin' that I say.
Someday I will return with the marriage license in my hand (repeat)
I'm gonna' to take you for a honeymoon in some long, long distant land.
Robert's own glances make it quite clear to whom the song is dedicated.
ANGLE ON THE CROWD
Some stirring and amused whispering. A few people watch Betty Mae. Others look around for Ralph.
CLOSE ON BETTY MAE
She doesn't know how to react--embarrassment, worry about her husband's reaction, pleasure at Johnson's words. She alternately stares down at the table and sneaks glances at the crowd of listeners.
ANGLE ON THE BAR
Ralph is behind it serving some people. He seems to be ignoring the whole thing aside from a general tightening of his facial muscles and a sheen of perspiration. Charles glances at him curiously; Ralph becomes aware of this and stares his barman down. Charles turns away, busying himself with customers.
The music continues throughout. Curtis takes out a new bottle of whiskey and turns his back on his customers (and the camera), presumably opening the bottle, but doing something at the back shelf too. When he moves away, we can see the now-open can of Red Devil lye.
ANGLE DOWN ON CROWD
Ralph approaches the bandstand carrying the loosely corked bottle and a glass. Without looking at Johnson, he hands these to him, then returns to the table where his wife waits. We can't see his face, but something there makes Betty Mae drop her eyes.
CLOSE ON JOHNSON
As he pulls the cork and tosses it; he also puts the glass aside.
JOHNSON (patronizing tone): Why, thank ya, Ralph.
He takes a long pull from the bottle, then shudders at the taste.
JOHNSON: Brrr! Ralph, you keep servin' mule-kick like this, you gonn' rez-u-reck Pro'bition!
ANOTHER ANGLE ON THE ROOM
No sign from Ralph that he has heard this quip. Some laughter from the crowd as Johnson takes a small swallow, then sets the bottle at his feet and moves into his next song. Dissolve to:
CLOSE ON THE BOTTLE
Now half-empty. Johnson's feet shift awkwardly beside it.
CLOSE ON JOHNSON
He looks decidedly ill now, shifting about uncomfortably. He is sweating heavily.
JOHNSON: Folks, I'm feelin' some sickly. I'm gonn' get off here now...
ANGLE ON CROWDED DANCE FLOOR--JOHNSON'S P.O.V.
Vocal opposition to this from the happy dancers looking up at him.
WOMAN: No, Robert! You cain't quit now!
FIRST MAN: You is in the alley!
SECOND MAN: We come all way out from town!
Betty Mae can be seen still seated in the background; she appears concerned. Curtis is talking to someone else.
ANGLE ON BANDSTAND
Johnson shifts uncomfortably, but he accedes to the crowd's demand.
JOHNSON: All right, I stay... long's I kin...
He looks over at Betty Mae and Curtis, and watching them seems to decide what to play next--his touching and beautiful "Love in Vain":
I followed her to the station, with her suitcase in my hand (repeat)
Well, it's hard to tell, it's hard to tell, when all your love's in vain, all my love's in vain...
When the train lef' the station, she had two lights on behind (repeat)
Well, the blue light was my blues, and the red light was my mind...
CLOSE ON BETTY MAE
Her reaction to this despairing love song.
CLOSE ON JOHNSON
Looking sicker and sicker as he struggles to get through this number. But he finally keels over, actually fainting.
He falls off the stool, knocking the bottle over, his guitar crashing down among the dancers. Consternation and concern from them.
ANGLE ON THE TABLE
Betty Mae leaps up, but Curtis grabs her arm and holds her back. Then he slowly gets up himself. He walks toward Johnson holding Betty Mae behind him and shouldering other people aside.
CURTIS: It's all right, folks. Prob'ly jus' too much to drink. I warned him 'bout that... Some o' y'all with a car tote him in to Greenwood. Pete? Thomas?
Johnson is half-conscious, writhing on the floor. The two large men Curtis designated lift Robert to his feet. Curtis lets go of his wife, gesturing to the other onlookers.
CURTIS: Cool down now! The boy be fine. Bar's still open, an' we get somebody up to play right quick.
The men half-walk, half-carry Johnson forward. He is more alert now, and as Curtis turns away, their eyes meet.
CLOSE ON CURTIS
Sweat streaming down his face; his look is stony and slightly triumphant.
CLOSE ON JOHNSON
Pain twisting his features, he yet gives Curtis a searching look, then a slight nod and the ghost of a half-smile.
ANGLE ON THE GROUP--HAND-HELD
Now stomach cramps double Robert over, and the men half-carry him towards the door out. Betty Mae sounds a wordless moan and tries to move past Curtis, but he holds her back again; then both of them slowly follow along after the three men, walking out of the building.
Many people watch from the doorway of Ralph's Roadhouse as Johnson and the men move across the half-lit spaces outside. Curtis halts Betty Mae once more. Suddenly the most excruciating pains yet clutch at Johnson's insides; and like a puppet yanked aside, his reacting muscles tear him from the supporting arms and throw him onto the ground.
JOHNSON (groaning): Maee...
BETTY MAE (screaming back): Robert!
She tears herself free from Curtis and runs across to Johnson.
LOW ANGLE SEEING MOSTLY DARKNESS
In low light, writhing in pain, Johnson is on his hands and knees; his head hangs down and his silhouette against the night seems some mockery of a four-legged animal. Betty Mae drops to her knees and tries to wrap her arms around him.
BETTY MAE: Oh Robert...
But Johnson has passed beyond awareness now. He moves free of her arms, crawling away from her, away from the light from the roadhouse. Betty Mae spins around, looking for Curtis.
ANGLE ON THE ROADHOUSE
Curtis is alone in the foreground, the watching people beyond him; even Curtis looks horrified now. Betty Mae runs to confront him, striking him about the head and chest with her flailing arms. He makes no move to stop her.
BETTY MAE: You did this! You! I wasn't gone with him! I wasn't!
ANGLE ON JOHNSON
Johnson's hands-and-knees shape moves terrifyingly in the darkness, moaning and groaning its guts out. The soundtrack picks up the highest moan and echoes it electronically, building on it, creating a whole cacophony of animal-like howls. Then the film and sound fade to black and silence.
CLOSE ON HEADSTONE--ZOOM OUT
A new wooden marker reads "ROBERT JOHNSON (1911-1938)." Hands drop a bouquet of wildflowers, as the zoom out reveals the donor, Betty Mae. Robert's grave lies in a small country graveyard. (Music plays throughout this Epilog, a reprise of Johnson's "Me and the Devil," the ending portion that says, "... bury my body down by the highway side... so my ol' evil spirit can get a Greyhoun' bus an' ride.")
Betty Mae turns away and walks across the graveyard to the low wooden fence; a suitcase awaits her outside it. She climbs over the rickety barrier and stops beside her suitcase at the edge of the highway. She is silent and dry-eyed.
Sounds of a large moving vehicle on the road; she looks up.
ANGLE ON THE HIGHWAY
A Thirties-era Greyhound bus approaches; the destination sign above the windshield reads "CHICAGO." Betty Mae flags it down, and the bus stops.
ANGLE ON THE BUS--PAN
Betty Mae boards, and the bus accelerates. Camera follows its departure, holding particularly on the greyhound emblem. Soon that symbol escapes, and the bus recedes up the highway, growing smaller and smaller in the Mississippi farmlands distance. Super roll CREDITS... and END.