As an avid guitarist, there’s a special place in my cold and shriveled little heart for the opening credits scene of Desperado. There are hundreds of popular movies about guitarists, some of which are really great (like Sweet and Lowdown and School of Rock) and some of which are really not (like Rock Star and Crossroads…wait, that’s the Britney Spears one). In the pantheon of Guitar Flicks — which, by the way, should totally be a genre on its own — Desperado might be close to the top, but it certainly isn’t the best movie available. Still, there’s something unique about the way Robert Rodriguez treats the guitar, and something especially mystical about that credit sequence.
Rodriguez’s entire Mexico Trilogy follows the same guitar-playing assassin, and there are probably arguments to be made for Desperado not even being the greatest entry in its own trilogy. While 1992’s El Mariachi was definitely improved upon in subsequent entries with the recasting of Antonio Banderas as El, Rodriguez’s debut feature still plays well as a standalone opener and a part of the larger trilogy. It’s without a doubt the most “realistic” depiction of a guitarist (at least at the beginning), and El’s attempt at finding a gig in the local saloon is probably one of the most gratifying scenes for any musician who’s spent time attempting the same.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico, the final installment of the trilogy, continues the trend of increased production value and added clout in the acting department. There are probably more memorable moments in the third installment than in Desperado, mostly due to Johnny Depp’s turn as the psychotic CIA agent with an extra arm and a very mature palate (“I’d like you to have a bite of my pork”). Even though Banderas actually has a smaller role here due to the expanded cast, by this point there’s a legend that surrounds El that makes his presence pervade every scene. Cheech Marin reprises his role from Desperado at the beginning of Once Upon a Time and tells Depp’s Sands that the story of El is “well-traveled…it might’ve picked up some embellishments along the way. Just read between the lines.” Not only has El’s legend reached epic proportions, but in fact the feared assassin sort of eclipses that guy who used to just be a penniless mariachi.
But in Desperado he’s still half-human, still building his Mariachi Mythos, and the opening scene catches that beautifully. The actual opening scene is a conversation between Steve Buscemi and Cheech Marin, in which they speak of El in that airily reverent way. Buscemi (he’s actually credited as “Buscemi”) calls him “the biggest Mexican” he’d ever seen (“big as shit“); he describes the man walking in a permanent shadow, as if the lights dimmed wherever he stepped; he describes a brutal shootout between an armed cadre and the lone guitarist. Cheech and Co., initially skeptical of Buscemi’s fantastical yarn, are spellbound by the end.
And then the credits appear, and we actually get to see El Mariachi in action. The primary gimmick of the Mexico Trilogy is that the guitar case in El’s possession is actually full of guns, and throughout Desperado we see El fire off a few hundred bullets and see his fellow mariachis use their guitar cases as missile launchers. But the Desperado credits roll and El is both a fun-loving mariachi and a protector of the innocent, and there aren’t any guns in sight:
That particular YouTube cut is succinctly titled “Gorgeous & Sexy Antonio Banderas Singing & Playing Guitar Sexy Music”, which has nothing to do with a conversation about the young legend of a heroic guitarist but just seemed noteworthy anyway. We might glean from this scene how El Mariachi really became the legend: not simply through killing bad guys and protecting the innocent but by making a show of it, and a damn entertaining show at that. The instrument of justice (gun) and the instrument of entertainment (guitar) do more than share the same leather case here. We may be approaching something akin to Tenacious D territory, but we’ll say it anyway: El Mariachi’s guitar is the instrument of justice.
Almost everything Robert Rodriguez has done has turned into a trilogy (see: Spy Kids; also, please no to a third Sin City). It’s the Mexico Trilogy that works best, though, because Desperado is willing to straddle the middle ground between the lowly mariachi and the legendary El. I submit that the Desperado credits scene is great by any standard, but if you’re a guitarist it has to be especially sweet. Maybe you should deploy this narrative as your own the next time you perform, recounting in elaborate Buscemi-like detail the supreme glee of headstock-whacking some jerk in the face without missing a note of the solo. Your legend has to advance somehow, right?