The Sublime Marriage of Music and Image in ‘Fandango’

The 1985 cult-favorite is a textbook example of how to use music effectively in film. Yet, there was never an official soundtrack release.

There have been few movies that so successfully and seamlessly integrate with their soundtrack as the 1985 Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Waterworld) film Fandango. The director’s first film, starring a young Kevin Costner, it’s the story of a group of recently graduated college students (who dub themselves “The Groovers”) on a cross-Texas road trip in 1971 to find someone or something called “DOM” at the Mexican border. An out of the ordinary road movie and coming of age story which deftly balances humor, pathos and nostalgia, Fandango has become a cult classic. The film is able to stir such devotion that there have been semi-annual Ultimate Fandango gatherings, which tour the shooting locations in the wilds of the state.

The care put into the music selection leaves an indelible mark on the scenes and ranges from classic rock, to atmospheric jazz and classical, to Tex-Mex. Yet, for such an accomplishment, the only official soundtrack releases contain the orchestral score by composer Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future, Cast Away, Forrest Gump). This leaves ardent fans, myself included, the enjoyable challenge of creating their own complete homemade soundtrack, piecing together the hits as well as trying to track down some of the more obscure selections.

Fandango began as a 20-minute short called Proof, created when Reynolds was in film school (available on the DVD Reel Talent: First Films by Legendary Directors) before it was picked up by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin’ Entertainment. Proof was a much rougher film with mostly different actors. The soundtrack was different as well, centering on Led Zeppelin’s “Friends”, but also including music pilfered from Star Wars. A bigger budget, more fully developed characters, and a longer running length resulted in a more memorable movie when it became Fandango.

From the first minute of the opening scene, we’re listening to music, as main character Gardner Barnes (Costner) throws darts at a picture of himself with a teenage girl. Even though there’s no dialogue as of yet, the lyrics of Cream’s “Badge” give us an insight into the story and what’s going on in Gardner’s head. “Thinkin’ bout the times you rode in my car / Thinkin’ that I might have drove you too far”. It’s not bad aim that results in all the darts hitting only his face in the photo.

“Badge” and the majority of the other classic rock songs used are ones that the characters in the film would conceivably be listening to. In fact, that opening song of Cream’s is being played on a record player in another room where a party is going on. As we hear from the placement of “Badge”, these aren’t just songs randomly thrown in to give the film period context.

Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright (for Fighting)” underscores an early-in-the-film raucous, careening car ride in the desert with the main characters. It’s over the next few minutes that we come to realize this isn’t a typical college party movie. The car runs out of gas and sits in the hot sun on the side of the road. The characters are saddled by hangovers and we hear a lonesome harmonica and conjunto star Ruben Vela’s “El Brazo Mocho” on the car radio, placing us squarely in the locale. The old-time western swing of “Taking Off” by Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies and Los Lobos’ “Ay Te Dejo en San Antonio” are used later in the film to re-emphasize this southwest geography, just a short distance from the Mexican border that the characters are aiming for in their odyssey. The vast Texas landscape, in fact, is a character itself in the film, implying the seemingly unlimited life possibilities — and the loneliness — on the friends’ horizon as they enter “the real world” post-graduation, eventually to go their separate ways.

A flashback sequence of Gardner and the girl pictured in the dart-throwing scene is set to Carole King’s “It’s Too Late”, a particularly sensitive breakup song from her 1971 Tapestry album. This new depth in the story is highlighted by the music very effectively again in a later scene, which takes place in a cemetery, where the characters and some local small-town girls play a game of cat and mouse with fireworks. The spirited game is brought back to a sober reality for Gardner and his friend Wagner when they stumble into the gravestone of a young soldier killed in Vietnam.

As the camera pans back we see smoke, fireworks exploding, and tombstones: a stark reminder of the ongoing Vietnam War, which the characters may be facing soon themselves. Reynolds could have used generic somber music, but instead uses an excerpt from Keith Jarrett’s “Spheres (7th Movement)”, which was performed on an 18th century pipe organ in a Benedictine abbey. It’s powerful, deep music, and by using such an instrument on the soundtrack, the long cycle of war through the ages is evoked.

These somber moments are balanced by lighter ones, including the Classics IV’s 1968 hit “Spooky” backing a comic scene at a drive-in diner in a small Texas town that’s a little lost in time. One expects to see Richie and the Fonz appear any minute.

Two of the most memorable sections of the movie are textbook examples of how to effectively use music in film. The first, a chaotic and comical skydiving sequence — with a psychedelically painted airplane piloted by a burnout who may or may not know what he’s doing — is set to “Symphony No. 8 (3rd Movement)” by Russian classical composer Dmitri Shostakovich, giving the scene a drama and gravitas to contrast with the goofiness. This creates a shared atmosphere of humor and suspense. (A later scene with the same barely able to fly plane and Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” playing creates a similar effect.)

In contrast, Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays’ “It’s for You” soundtracks a late-in-the-film wedding scene. A track in three movements, the scene seems (and maybe was) sequenced to the music. The first section is bright and uplifting as the main characters regroup, the bonds of friendship still intact after becoming a little frayed earlier in the trip. It’s the satisfying sound of relief, closure, and resolution, before it switches to the second section for the ceremony, with wordless vocals a holy intonement. Then comes the jangly release, the “fandango” section: a celebration.

The grouping of “It’s For You” and two other Metheny pieces, the quiet “September 15th” and “Farmer’s Trust”, late in the film provide a winding down from the high energy of earlier events in the story. As the credits roll, Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” plays. It’s also a reflective piece of music, as we wonder what’s in store for the characters. Some things are unresolved, especially the fate of Gardner, who’s considering evading the draft. The splitting of the Groovers is bittersweet as they separate to make their way in the world. They can’t continue “going nowhere” (which is the “privilege of youth”, to quote Gardner) as they leave the “home” of youthful friendship and brotherhood, which has provided a shelter for them. The song also functions as a commentary on the Vietnam generation, recalling a more innocent / less aware time before the war, which they (and we) can never go back to.

Though the movie is not as well remembered for Silvestri’s score as for the other music, it was released on CD twice. The first time it was accompanied by his score for the action film Blown Away, but oddly much of the Fandango music on that CD was not used in the film’s final cut, and it was missing other sections that were used. In 2013 Intrada issued a more complete version of the Fandango Silvestri music in its Special Collection series. Yet, both of these CDs are out of print as of this writing.

Fandango succeeds admirably in its fusion of longing for eternal youth combined with the optimism for future uncharted roads that adulthood offers, in no small part due to its diverse and well-chosen soundtrack. Without that musical accompaniment, fleshing out the scenes and adding greater emotion and dimensionality, it would be half the film that it is.