So what really went down that night at the crossroads? Blues aficionados are very familiar with the legend surrounding the groundbreaking 1920’s blues icon Robert Johnson. Johnson, so the story goes, sold his soul to the Devil in order to learn to play the blues that made him famous. His tussle with the Devil unfortunately didn’t turn out nearly as well as did that fiddler’s duel down in Georgia, however; the blues pioneer dying a rather suspicious death before turning thirty.
“Note Come Due” is director Jordan Freid’s hypothetical telling of what might have occurred after Johnson’s ill-fated deal. Johnson — known here as “RJ” (Shawn Michæl Howard) — is trying to slip out the door the morning after an illicit tryst with Mary (Phina Oruche), a farmer’s wife, when she initially asks, then insists to join him on the road. Seems RJ’s slimy “manager” Nestro (Terrence Evans) has filled her head with crazy ideas about her becoming a singer. Nestro, of course, is none other than our ol’ pal Beelzebub himself; an oily sleaze who gradually reveals to RJ the multiple layers of his sophisticated plan. He explains how by teaching RJ the blues, he’s actually made an investment: he’ll capitalize on the artist’s popularity to harvest souls to his dark side.
With the rebellious bluesman lying near death after Mary’s husband Alvin (Thom Barry) suckered him with a poisoned drink, Nestro presents RJ with a no-win choice: either work with him or die. Either RJ takes Mary on the soul-corrupting road with him and agrees to recruit other impressionable souls to the Devil’s cause, or Nestro will let RJ die…and own his soul for eternity.
If this slickly-produced might-have-been-true short film is any indication of the quality of film offered up under the Hollywood Shorts Emerging Directors program, it’s a program worth keeping around. Freid draws convincing, if slightly overwrought performances out of his capable cast. DP Steve Galner, meanwhile, paints his idealistically rustic rural setting with pretty light to accompany the film’s gritty blues soundtrack.
“Note Come Due” works on two levels. While the allegory it tells is universal enough to allow anyone, not just Robert Johnson fans to identify with it, those same fans will derive a certain amount of additional pleasure in seeing this interpretation of their hero’s life and death. A bit too on the nose, perhaps, “Note Come Due” is nonetheless a tasty historic fable come to life.