****MAJOR SPOILERS, DUDE!!****
Way back in the fall of 1989, on a Friday night with a good friend of mine, we decided to take in what looked to be a very guilty pleasure sorta movie… “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” Turned out to be a fun little flick, too; think “Back to the Future” meets “Wayne’s World,” stuck in a blender, and set to puree– the result was 90 minutes of harmless, frothy fun. Alex Winters (“Bill Preston”) and future superstar Keanu Reeves (“Ted Logan”) were born to play the two affable airheads, who, with the aid of a future guide named Rufus (the late George Carlin) are sent through time to collect various notable figures in human history (Socrates, Abe Lincoln, Genghis Khan, etc) in order to ace a history report (which will allow them to make music that will someday unite the human race into a prosperous future, of course). Nothing terribly deep, a few clever sci-fi/time-travel jokes and a bunch of silly lines to quote at work for a few weeks afterward.
A few years later, the sequel “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey” (1991) came out, and we rented that one on VHS. Once again, harmless and silly, but also a lot less linear. The sequel went to even more wonderfully absurd heights as the would-be rockstar/saviors are killed by lookalike robot assassins, and are sent to Heaven and Hell, where they manage to become buds with Death himself (a scene-stealing William Sadler). Along the way they meet helpful furry aliens and finally get their future-saving music career off the ground (stay through the end credits and you’ll see Death himself involved in a lip-synching scandal…like I said, it’s wonderfully absurd). As for which was better, that’s a real apples and oranges issue. The first film is a more linear comedy with a ticking clock, while the more meandering second movie goes to far more ambitious places within its weird little universe.
Original writers Chris Matheson (son of famed author/screenwriter Richard Matheson, of “The Twilight Zone” “I Am Legend” & “Stir of Echoes”, among many others) and Ed Solomon have re-teamed with original stars Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter to craft a new story which sees a middle-aged Bill & Ted tackling fatherhood, marriage issues and the universe-collapsing hazards of not fulfilling their most excellent destinies. My old friend and her now teenaged son joined my wife and I for a backyard-projected, iTunes-screening of this latest film. Watching the movie with her son, it was hard not to relate to the middle aged heroes of the story…
Face the Music.
The movie opens by briefly recapping the years since we last saw Ted Logan (Keanu Reeves) and Bill Preston (Alex Winter). While their band “Wyld Stallyns” enjoyed a brief bout of success in the 1990s, their great contribution to music that was supposed to change the world forever has still eluded them. For the past 25 years, they’ve worked feverishly to write that one song that was supposed to unify humanity and harmonize the universe, but it has yet to materialize, after decades wasted in the attempt…
Still married to their 15th century English princesses, Joanna (Jayma Mays) and Elizabeth (Erin Hayes), Bill & Ted are starting to feel their ages as their music sales have long since cooled, and they’re now forced to play wedding gigs–specifically the wedding of Ted’s younger brother Deacon (Beck Bennett) who is marrying Missie (Amy Stoch), the aging former teenage crush of Bill and Ted. Missie is arguably the most morally repulsive character in the entire trilogy, as she has zero qualms about marrying from Bill’s father to Ted’s father to Ted’s kid brother. Yuck. Perhaps deservedly, Bill & Ted botch the music of Deacon’s wedding to Missy quite badly, resulting in yet another reprimand from Ted’s aged father, San Dimas Police Chief Logan (Hal Landon). The Chief is still on the police force, along with Deacon. Once again, Chief Logan begs Bill & Ted to surrender their undying dream of creating universe-harmonizing music; a dream the Chief always believed to be a load of crap, much like the boys’ time-travel and afterlife stories.
We then meet Bill & Ted’s respective daughters Thea (Samara Weaving) and Billy (Bridgette Lundy-Paine), who are rehearsing their own music in the Preston garage. The two girls are personality doppelgängers of their metalhead dads, but with more genuine musical savvy, which they hide under their slacker personae. Bill & Ted, despite their goofiness, genuinely love their daughters and very much support their musical ambitions, unlike their own dads.
This domestic scene is interrupted by the appearance of a mystery woman named Kelly (Kristen Schaal), who arrives in their San Dimas suburb in a time-capsule from the 28th century. Kelly is the daughter of Rufus (George Carwell) who was the boys’ guide and mentor in the original films. Kelly is being pressured by her ruthless mother and Great Leader (Holland Taylor) to bring Bill & Ted to their century and inform them of a new imminent danger. Billie and Thea see their fathers being abducted in the time pod and smartly assume their slacker dads are in deep s#!t…
Note: Kelly’s wardrobe maintains continuity with the earlier films, showing that all future SoCal fashion will look like bad 1980s haute couture.
Arriving in a gleaming San Dimas of the 28th century, Great Leader informs the duo that reality itself is collapsing, with historical figures and places being plucked out from everywhere within the spacetime continuum. We see Jesus, George Washington and many others being dropped at random into bizarre new locales (even the pyramids at Giza wind up in San Dimas later on…). This undoing of spacetime is the direct result of Bill & Ted’s failure to write and record their all-unifying song. Great Leader informs the duo they now have a ticking clock of about an hour and a half to fix this. By that very evening, Bill & Ted need to create the ‘greatest song ever recorded’ or the universe ends. No pressure, mind you. Bill & Ted decide the best course of action is to go forward into their own immediate future and steal the (presumed) already written song from themselves.
Meanwhile, Thea and Billie device their own plan to help their dads. Just as mentor Rufus helped their dads’ gather historical figures to ace their oral report, Thea & Billie decide to abduct various great musicians from the past in order to help their dads create the music that will unify humanity forever. For some inexplicable reason, rapper/songwriter Kid Cudi comes to the girls’ aid, and they take off in a time pod across history.
Note: It’s probably wise not to question Kid Cudi’s appearance as a technobabble-spouting advisor; it makes no more sense than Genghis Khan at Raging Waters in the first film, or Death becoming a rock icon in the second.
Forced to abandon couples’ therapy with their wives, Bill & Ted promise to make things right with the princesses while confounding their overloaded therapist, Dr. Wood (Jillian Bell). The two then go off a few years into their own futures and see their later selves as a pair of English-accented posers trying to steal Dave Grohl’s music, and further still as a pair of hardcore, musclebound, heavily-tattooed inmates doing hard time for running from the cops. Finding no help from their near-future selves, Bill & Ted reach an impasse.
Note: The special effects makeup for this movie, once again overseen by Kevin Yagher (who worked on the previous two) is simply amazing; the aging makeup is remarkably subtle and textured for a comedy, and the musclebound torsos seen in Bill & Ted’s prison yard selves is both realistic and hilariously over-the-top. If there is an Oscar ceremony next year (post-COVID) I truly think this movie deserves a makeup nomination, if not an outright win.
Their daughters are having far more luck in their quest. Arriving in the late 1960s, they meet legendary rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix (DazMann Still) who doesn’t believe their time travel story until they retrieve the raspy-voiced trumpeting icon Louis Armstrong (Jeremiah Craft) from 1920s New Orleans. They’ve also nabbed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (an uncredited Daniel Dorr) from 18th century Austria, and then proceed to snatch an ancient Chinese woodwind player named Ling Lun (Sharon Gee) as well a cavewoman percussionist named Grom (Patty Anne Miller) to round out their band. Returning to the present with their historical catches, the girls face complications from a trigger-happy, insecure terminator-android curiously named Dennis Caleb McCoy (Anthony Carrigan) who is sent by the Great Leader to kill Bill & Ted in a desperate, Hail Mary attempt to stop the universe from imploding on itself. Dennis misfires and accidentally wipes out Billie, Thea and all of their historically-culled talent, as well as Kelly, the daughter of the Great Leader herself. The robot feels really badly about that…
Bill and Ted find themselves as geriatrics in 2067 where they meet with the insecure murder-bot Dennis, who suffers massive guilt over what he’s done. Since they’re quite familiar with the afterlife, Bill & Ted arrange for Dennis to kill them as well, in an attempt to find their daughters. Dennis then self-destructs. The two fathers reunite with their daughters in Hell. The girls are laboring relentlessly for all eternity, but are otherwise fine. They also meet the girls’ carefully assembled historical ‘band.’ Bill & Ted even find Dennis, whose self-destruction has curiously sent him into the Nether Reaches as well. While it’s never stated specifically, I’m guessing Dennis is a cyborg, not an android (hence, he would have a soul which could wind up in the afterlife. This is where Bill & Ted’s old friend Death (William Sadler) comes back into the picture. Death is still pissed with the two for destroying his musical aspirations as well as his career in the Afterlife, since he returned the duo to mortal existence in the last film (against Hell’s official policy). It takes daughters Thea and Billie to win Death over by soothing the Grim Reaper’s ego with some well-placed flattery; they also invite Death into their new band (they love his old song, “Too Pale to Cry”). Before you know it, Death smuggles Billie, Thea, Bill, Ted, Hendrix, Mozart, Armstrong, Ling, Grom, Kelly, Kid Cudi and even the neurotic Dennis onto a Hell van, which rockets right back up to Earth.
Note: One has to remember that mortal death in the Bill & Ted universe is treated as little more than a temporary inconvenience rather than a truly life-ending state. William Sadler’s returning character of Death, of course, is based on the version of “Death” seen in the 1957 Ingmar Bergman classic “The Seventh Seal”, which saw Death challenging a returning knight from the Crusades to a high stakes game of chess. That “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey” referenced a 1957 Swedish art film showed just how far that first sequel really pushed outside the bounds of modern commercial viability. While “Bill & Ted Face the Music” may be less ambitious than its immediate predecessor, it’s no less entertaining.
With the clock ticking down to the last few minutes, the Van from Hell (sounds like a 1975 exploitation flick) arrives and is stuck on the 210 freeway from Los Angeles to Pasadena (an infamous stretch of freeway if you hit it at the wrong hour). With the clock nearly out on their 7:17 pm deadline, Bill & Ted still have no idea what to sing for their ‘one great song’ to fix the ever-destabilizing universe. Luckily, this is why fathers have clever daughters. Thea and Billie are already assembling the band, with the aid of musical equipment sprang from a stalled truck on the same freeway (all-too convenient, yes, but this is a comedy about a piece of music saving all of spacetime… deal). Once plugged in, the newly assembled Wyld Stallyns Version 2.0 begin to realize that it wasn’t just their song that saved the universe….it was the unifying effect of everyone at various points along the destabilized spacetime continuum being able to hear it and feel in the same moment.
As their girls lead the band, Bill & Ted also begin to realize something even more profound. Their daughters were the key to saving the universe all along; Bill & Ted are there only as their daughters’ backup! The ‘song’ has no lyrics, either. It’s a universal celebration of the joy of playing music. A mishmash of styles and genres from classical, jazz, rock, metal, rap, reggae, woodwinds, you name it. With the spacetime continuum experiencing this celebration of music throughout infinity, it truly does begin to unify humanity and bind the universe together. Don’t ask…just go with it.
The music spreads, and up in the future, Great Leader notices that the spacetime continuum is repairing itself as people and things are returning to their rightful order. All is right in the cosmos. Turns out it wasn’t Bill & Ted’s mission to unify the cosmos; it was their mission to help create (and inspire) a pair of daughters who would fulfill that destiny. Bill? Ted? Meet Sarah Connor.
There is a post-credits coda of an elderly Bill & Ted from 2067 trying to rock one last time in their San Dimas nursing home. Worth sticking around for.
Bill & Ted Unplugged.
Keeping expectations fairly low is a healthy approach when watching a comedy about two aging rockers whose particular brand of metal is supposed to unite humanity, but “Bill & Ted Face the Music” succeeds nevertheless. While lacking the novelty of the first film or the metaphysical weirdness of the second, the sequel wisely mines the nostalgia of the now middle-aged crowd who grew up enjoying the originals, but also keeps an eye on their kids as well. The message here is that the best thing a parent can do for their children is to play backup for them when it’s their turn in the spotlight. We oldsters had our dreams and adventures in youth; now we can gracefully support the new generation in theirs. It’s a surprisingly poignant message delivered by a pair of metalhead court jesters.
Good parenting tips aside, another major joy of this movie is how Bill & Ted face middle age (and even old age in the movie’s post-credits coda) while always maintaining their unique brand of youthful humor and eternal optimism. Bill & Ted represent a side of ourselves that accepts all the bill-paying responsibilities of adulting, while never fully growing up, either. I think I had almost as much fun watching this film as it looks like Winters and Reeves had making it.
COVID-19 Safe Viewing
“Bill & Ted Face the Music” is available for streaming rental (and purchase) on iTunes, YouTube and Prime Video for around $19.99 (or purchased as a digital copy for $24.99). To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are around 185,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, there’s no vaccine or even effective treatment for COVID-19 as of yet. Yes, some businesses are reopening, but the overall situation is far from safe. So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible.
Please stay safe, and be excellent to each other!