The Three Amigos! Is like comfort food to me. I first saw it when it first came out, when I was in high school, when I was going through a particularly tough stretch, and I went back to see it two more times. Since then it’s been one of the most reliable go-tos on my DVD shelf during times of frustration, anger, whatever. For me, it’s the simple, uplifting, melodramatic plot, the endearing dumbness of the three main characters, played by Steve Martin, Martin Short and Chevy Chase, and the music. It’s a quality comedy from the mid-80s, a feel-good time.
So what sets it apart from other such films? Historical significance, at least to fans of Randy Newman. The Three Amigos! Is the only screenplay Newman ever wrote (co-wrote, actually, with Martin and SNL creator Lorne Michaels), so the humor carries some of the biting wit of his his funnier songs, those sung in the voices of hapless, lowlife characters, who do and say things that are at once absurd and brilliant. The best examples in this film come from the bad guys – a hideously surly bandito named El Guapo (trans: The Handsome) and his yes-man sidekick, Jefe (Boss). At one point El Guapo asks Jefe, “Would you say that I have a plethora?” Jefe immediately and wholeheartedly agrees, “Yes, El Guapo, I believe that you have a plethora”. Of course, Jefe doesn’t know what plethora means. (Neither did I at the time.) In another scene at El Guapo’s birthday party, in the middle of the scorching northern Mexico desert, Jefe and his crew give their boss a sweater of the hideous late-80s variety, and El Guapo is most pleased. It’s silly, yes, but weird in a kind of smart way.
Newman also wrote three songs for the film, "The Ballad of the Three Amigos", "My Little Buttercup", and "Blue Shadows,” all of which are great songs that suit the story and characters well. The first provides one of the best gags in the film, an improbably long, sustained note sung by the three main characters as they ride their horses across the horizon. During “Blue Shadows,” adorable creatures come out of desert darkness to sing along. And Newman even plays a role, the voice of a singing bush the Amigos find in an arroyo. The idea is taken from the Bible, of course, but the songs the bush sings are old 19th Century ditties, and it’s voice is nasally and hilarious.
This film was the first I knew of Newman doing film work. His songs had appeared in earlier films, but almost all of those were ones he’d already recorded on an album. So this marks one of his first significant forays into Hollywood, for better or worse, the beginning of a shift in his career, coming between Trouble in Paradise and Land of Dreams, the last record he would release for another seven years, and arguably one of his darkest and most personal. He’s said to have been going through a divorce at the time, and his mother died, so I like to think this project became like comfort food for him, too and in this way maybe I share something in common with one of the great singer songwriters.
- Joe Miller