Searching for Robert Johnson
Alan Greenberg’s Unmade Screenplay
The failure of any filmmaker to produce Alan Greenberg’s screenplay, Love in Vain, seems almost as mysterious as the life of its subject, Robert Johnson. Mick Jagger took a hand in this exploration of the great bluesman as far back as the late-‘70s and Greenberg acknowledges the interest of many other familiar names, among them Bob Dylan, David Lynch, Werner Herzog and Prince. Martin Scorsese wrote the forward to the second published edition, but that was 1994.
The University of Minnesota Press has just reissued the screenplay in paperback, and in light of the recent acclaim for Beasts of the Southern Wild, filmmakers should take another look at Greenberg’s manuscript. As critic Stanley Crouch writes in his perceptive introduction to the first edition (1983), Greenberg’s script transcends the dull factuality of realism—or pseudo-factuality of the usual Hollywood biographical pictures.
Instead, Love in Vain “transmits how a world may have felt to those participants, onlookers, and descendants swept up in the lore of time.” Southern Wild’s Hushpuppy hears her dead mother and encounters prehistoric beasts in the world of her experience. In Love in Vain, Johnson meets Satan, signs a Faustian bargain and becomes the greatest Delta blues guitarist and poet—the harbinger of rock’n’roll—trading his soul for the burst of uncanny creativity that left behind barely 30 recorded songs.
It’s a mythic tale of the 20th century and still deserves to find a filmmaker in the 21st.