‘Three Amigos’ Secret Weapon Is Its Music
Three Amigos famously stars Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short as a trio of silent film stars who get dragged into a real-life conflict involving a small Mexican village, believing it to be just another acting gig. Hilarity – and eventually Galaxy Quest – ensues.
Look, not everything about Three Amigos holds up so well today, namely the stereotypical, racist depictions of the Mexican characters and the whole white savior (make that three white saviors) narrative. Still, it’s impossible to dismiss the top-notch gags and hilarious performances.
The most underappreciated reason why the movie works so well is its music – which shouldn’t be all that surprising given that the screenplay was co-written by Randy “I’ve written like 15 songs about the friendships between plastic toys and children” Newman. Music explicitly plays into much of the story, whether it's the Amigos’ vaudeville routine “My Little Buttercup” (composed by Newman) …
Or Newman’s “Blue Shadows (On the Trail)” as crooned by Chevy Chase …
And then there’s the legendary Singing Bush …
But the backbone of the film, arguably, is its score. Instead of an overtly comedic tone, the sweeping, frequently romantic score conjures an old Hollywood Western vibe. And the filmmakers did this by hiring legendary composer Elmer Bernstein, who created the music for classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Escape.
Director John Landis actually knew the composer decades before Three Amigos was made because he was childhood friends with Bernstein’s son. When Landis made National Lampoon’s Animal House, he suggested hiring Bernstein for the job, and, according to Landis, the studio “literally laughed in my face.”
After Animal House, Bernstein scored a number of beloved ‘80s comedies, including Airplane! and Ghostbusters. And he was the perfect choice for Three Amigos since he was the composer for The Magnificent Seven, which was clearly the primary narrative inspiration for the comedy. As Landis later stated, Bernstein turned in a “spectacular, rousing western score” with “a 108-piece orchestra.”
And it's the earnest, old-fashioned score that makes the comedy work so well; it’s basically a musical straight man for the absurd characters to bounce off of – as if Martin, Chase, and Short’s buffoonish characters somehow stumbled into a legit, old-timey Western … albeit one with some sentient shrubbery.
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