The legend of blues guitarist Robert Johnson is a neat enough one from far enough away. You have a young, ambitious kid who sells his soul to the Devil for limitless talent at playing Delta blues. He gets his wish, but dies after doing just 41 recordings, an apparent victim of ole’ Scratch’s screwy contracts. To add insult to injury, the Devil calls in a few favors with Walter Hill and Columbia Pictures, and gets Crossroads, an enjoyably silly film where Ralph Macchio uses classical-infused blues guitar playing to somehow defeat Steve Vai in a heads-up duel inspired by the Johnson dilemma, made. Of course, the facts of Johnson’s life don’t quite support the above account, and his early death at the age of 27 was mostly likely the result of a combination of either poisoning, congenital defects, or both. Walter Hill may still be going to Hell, however.

As for Johnson, there’s lots of good story to be told there, and no need for it to play background to a battle of 80s titans. So HBO Films is developing a movie based on his life, and they’re going with tried and true music biopic screenwriter James L. White (Ray) to do the script. I’m happy to see HBO doing this as they’ve always been a pretty friendly outfit for black stories and black talent in the industry, and unlike past networks like UPN, they didn’t throw them under the bus once they started getting more prestige (read: critically successful and white) shows under their belt. But with James L. White doing the screenplay, it seems like we’re looking at a more conventional – and duller – type of biopic in the making here. And I think it would be a shame if this were just one more movie that they could pair up with Lackawanna Blues or Something The Lord Made whenever February rolls around and HBO – like every other network – has to re-up on some feature black entertainment – and quick!

Supposedly, HBO hasn’t made up their mind whether they want this to be theatrical or not yet, but I think if they’re serious at all about this having the potential for theatrical success, they’ve gotta have White really rip into the rich Delta history and the role that the occult played into that. It must be more than a series of standard beats because frankly Robert Johnson recordings, no matter how you repackage them, aren’t going to move lattes at Starbucks. There will be no Duets album where they turn over the master recordings to Will.I.Am and Polow Da Don to sample and turn into club anthems (Okay, that’s physically possible, but please, Satan, just keep up your stellar work on the career of Fergie and ignore this idea). His work is absolutely uncommercial as is his true story. And seeing either or both shoehorned into a more…palatable…form would be a real disservice. At the very least, they’ve retained Johnson’s son, Claud, as an advisor on the project.