Steven Spielberg saw the film and helped fund a feature-length comedy/drama about five college students from Texas in 1971 who go on a "last" road trip together, celebrating the "privilege of youth" as they face graduation, marriage, and the draft for the Vietnam War.
In 1971 at a fraternity house on the University of Texas campus in Austin, Texas, Gardner Barnes (Kevin Costner) is throwing darts at a picture of himself and his ex-girlfriend (Suzy Amis). He rejoins the graduation party going on downstairs, but not before tearing the picture in half.
Gardner is a member of a clique called the Groovers, whose other members include Kenneth Waggener (Sam Robards) who's engaged to be married, and ROTC geek Phil Hicks (Judd Nelson). Phil's parents have come to town and to the fraternity house just in time to see another Groover named Lester (Brian Cesak) pass out. (He remains unconscious for most of the film.) They also meet the strong, quiet seminary student Dorman (Chuck Bush).
Kenneth interrupts the festivities by announcing his student deferment has expired and he is now to be drafted into the Army. Gardner is not surprised: his own notice came weeks before. Kenneth also reveals he has decided to call off his engagement to Debbie on account of being drafted. Gardner reacts (strangely) with some joy and relief. The Groovers decide to celebrate their last days before the draft by going on a road trip, intending to visit a notorious roadhouse, then "dig up" someone - or something - named Dom near the Rio Grande. They drive all night before making a "rest stop." Some, most notably Phil, resist going on, but Gardner presses them on.
Phil's car runs out of gas and the Groovers must decide whether to walk to the nearest town or hitch. Phil is adamant about not leaving his car behind, when someone gets an idea: a train is about to pass on a railroad track parallel to the road. Dorman grabs some cable from a fence and makes a lasso. He attaches the other end to the front bumper of the car, as the train passes, Dorman lassos the back of the train. The Groovers are in the car, waiting, when Gardner asks, "How are we going to stop?" but this is answered when the front end of the car is pulled off, leaving the car in place.
The Groovers manage to push the car to the nearest town, leave it at a garage, and eat at a Sonic Drive-In. They meet up with some townie girls (one of whom is played by E.G. Daily) and eventually end up playing in a cemetery operated by the undertaker father of one of the girls, where they come upon the tombstone of a fallen Vietnam War veteran. Kenneth says, "I can't go (to Vietnam)." Gardner replies, "Then don't." They end up sleeping at the former movie set of Giant.
When the car is repaired the next morning with a front end from a different make and model, the Groovers continue on their way. Phil complains about wanting to go back – and thinks Gardner might flee to Mexico to avoid the draft – when Kenneth shouts angrily at him. Gardner confesses they only let Phil hang with them because they felt sorry for him.
Humiliated, Phil retorts that he will take on any challenge. The group sees a sign for a parachute school that gives jumping lessons. Phil reluctantly agrees to try it. Gardner cons the rather hippie-ish instructor, one Truman Sparks (Marvin J. McIntyre), into giving them a free lesson.
Phil is terrified but goes up into Truman's aircraft anyway. Then the boys realize that Phil's pack is lacking a parachute because it is full of Truman's dirty laundry. They try desperately to warn him (there's no ground-to-aircraft communication) but fail. Fortunately, Truman and Phil are connected by walkie-talkie, so when the main chute fails, Phil, scared stiff, is able to open the emergency chute on his stomach with much prompting from Truman. The Groovers get a picture for their efforts, letting Phil get some of his wounded pride back.
After discovering the charred, abandoned remains of the roadhouse, the Groovers press onward. At last they reach a bluff overlooking the Rio Grande and dig up Dom – which turns out to be a magnum of Dom Perignon champagne. Each takes a drink before Gardner drinks a toast to "freedom and youth."
Kenneth is disheartened; he has had second thoughts about calling off the engagement. Pondering a bit on the nature of love, Gardner decides to make things right. He calls Debbie, gets her to accept the engagement again, and arranges for transport for her from Dallas to the border town; Truman Sparks agrees to fly there and back. Through a bit of trickery, reminiscent of stone soup, he sets up a beautiful wedding for Kenneth and Debbie. Debbie and Gardner share one last dance before she goes. (She is the girl whose picture Gardner threw darts at earlier and whom he has more than one dream about.)
After the ceremony, Phil lets Kenneth and Debbie have his car as a wedding present. Lester goes to hitch a ride "anywhere" and Phil and Dorman shake hands before leaving. Perched atop a cliff overlooking the town and more specifically viewing the remaining lights of the wedding reception, Gardner lifts a beer in salute to his friends.
Principal photography began in 1984 at a number of locations, primarily in Texas, including Alpine, Austin, El Paso, Fort Davis, Lajitas, Marathon, Marfa, Monahans, Pecos, and San Elizario. Big Bend Ranch State Park in Texas (where Dom was located) and Tulsa, Oklahoma, were also prominent in the film.
The skydiving sequence in Fandango is shot-for-shot taken from Kevin Reynolds's USC thesis film, Proof from 1980. Spielberg had seen a copy of Proof and offered to produce the project, which became Fandango, through his company, Amblin Entertainment.
The supposed backdrop of downtown Dallas where Truman Sparks flies to, is the city of Tulsa in 1984/85. The aerial sequence was filmed with the assistance of the Commemorative Air Force (then known as the Confederate Air Force), which has its main headquarters in Texas. The screen credits note: "Special thanks to the Confederate Air Force for their assistance in making this motion picture."
In her review of Fandango for The New York Times, Janet Maslin praised Kevin Reynolds' "way with the sight gags and off-the-wall humor that make this a notable debut. And he brings a good deal of feeling to the moments in which the film's twin specters – Vietnam and maturity – intrude upon the frantic festivities." The Globe and Mail also praised the direction: "Reynolds shows an uncanny confidence with the camera, a sureness which is backed up by a powerful visual sensitivity and an ear for language, especially the vernacular of Texas, where the film is set."
Leonard Maltin called Fandango "fresh and likeable, if uneven." Quentin Tarantino was quoted in Empire as follows: "Fandango is one of the best directorial debuts in the history of cinema. I saw Fandango five times at the movie theater and it only played for a fucking week, all right."
Modern reappraisals have focused on the storytelling and character development, surprising for a directorial debut. Reviewer Bryan Pope critiqued the DVD version as, "Breezy and confident, and with a wing dinger of a soundtrack, Fandango is the definition of a sleeper. Before the final credits roll, its characters will have downed a few beers, faced fears, forged new friendships, tested old ones, and searched with some success for the answers to life's important questions. And, yes, one of them will even have danced the fandango under the Texas sky."
Although Steven Spielberg was disappointed with the finished film and did not have his name on the product, Amblin Entertainment is still credited. Fandango did not receive a widespread release, grossing less than US$100,000. However, through television and video, Fandango grew in popularity and, in July 2010, fans held a 25th anniversary celebration at the filming locations.
Suzy Amis and Sam Robards followed their characters' fates and married in 1986. Reynolds and Costner would later go on to work together on two more films, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and Waterworld (1995). Reynolds was Costner's uncredited second unit director and set advisor for the western epic and Costner directorial debut Dances with Wolves (1990). Reynolds and Costner collaborated once again on the History Channel mini-series Hatfields & McCoys (2012).