Love in Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson
University of Minnesota Press
Rating: 5 stars
Arguably the most notorious screenplay to never be filmed, Love in Vain is nearly as mythic as its subject, the doomed bluesman Robert Johnson. Alan Greenberg wrote the script in the 1970s, and at one point Mick Jagger had plans to produce a film adaptation. So did Martin Scorsese. So did Sean Combs. In book form, it has gone in and out of print over the last few decades, but this new volume should give it some grounding and permanence.
Love in Vain is no mere biopic. Greenberg mixes hearsay and legend with his own exhaustive research to depict the South as slightly removed from reality and to portray Johnson with all insecurities and ambitions intact. At first he’s inscrutable, present in most scenes yet rarely the focus character. It’s only as the story progresses that he becomes fully and almost unbearably human, a tragic figure who seems to live just off the pages of the book.
Greenberg, perhaps unwittingly, has written not a piece of cinema, but a formidable work of experimental literature—something between play and poetry. His stage directions are crucial to the story not simply because they describe the action, but because they set and sustain such an odd, eerie atmosphere. Even the forewords penned by Martin Scorsese and Stanley Crouch, while not new to this edition, cling to the story hardily, as though inseparable from the work itself. In that regard, Love in Vain thrives in this unfilmed state, where it cannot relinquish its mysteries so easily.