I thought I’d better do a rewatch of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey before we got Bill & Ted Face the Music. I hadn’t seen either of the earlier films in ages, maybe not since they were new, and I remember really enjoying them, what with me being a GenX child of the 80s and all. But I approached them again now with some trepidation. Would I would still see them as most excellent, or would I now find them totally heinous?
It’s possible that the warm hug of nostalgia both movies provided overly influenced me: I graduated high school two years before Bill and Ted do here, and their suburban Los Angeles habitat wasn’t too different from my suburban New York one. Bill and Ted are the clown princes of my adolescence — nay, they are the philosopher-fools. Their chill zen in the face of their own ignorance has always been perversely inspiring to me, who lives in her head, who has a hard time shutting her brain off to sleep at night, and who, should I live to be 150, will never tire of shoving more knowledge into my noggin. It’s difficult to imagine what life would be like if I weren’t like this, but the profound serenity, the literally simple joy of Bill and Ted are, if nothing else, a nice fantasy.
Both movies, it transpires, held up fairly well for me, with the deep and abiding love between doofus best pals Bill S. Preston, Esq (Alex Winter: The Borrowers), and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves: Toy Story 4, Always Be My Maybe) the charming heart that got me over a few problematic bumps. Calling each other “fag” when they express their mutual affection? Actually being awarded princesses when they finish their quest… princesses who instantly adore them? Part of me shrugs that stuff off with “Well, 80s…” and a sigh, but another part is cringing and facepalming.
Still, never mind. The irresistible grand goofiness of 1989’s Excellent Adventure renders irrelevant the fact that none of it makes a lick of sense even on its own terms. The boys engage in massively irresponsible time travel (man, how the Doctor would scold them!) to gather up great historical figures in order to pass a make-or-break high-school final exam, and somehow they go from total ignoramuses about all of these personages to profound understandings of them with no apparent learning process beyond shepherding them around the San Dimas shopping mall, the educational value of which seems dubious. But so what? Even more miraculous than the silliness is how the movie’s sentiment is truly touching without ever being sappy. (This hails from the time before Hollywood stopped being able to satisfyingly blend the comedic and the tender.) The notion that Bill and Ted’s genuine niceness might be the basis for a future utopian society — that’s who lent the boys the time machine — is lovely. Their mantra of “Be excellent to each other” won’t ever not be worth heeding. (Also true of their use of double and triple negatives, though I’m still trying to unravel the meaning of “non non non heinous.” Is that too many nons? Or not enough?)
If Excellent Adventure is like Idiocracy but sweet, 1991’s Bogus Journey ups the ante in a way akin to how Back to the Future Part II did: it’s the rare sequel that’s better than its source movie, but also just plain bonkers like how studio movies hardly ever dare to be. I’d go so far as to venture that it’s one of the most deliciously odd teen comedies ever. It’s deeply existential, probing matters of life and death, the nature of good and evil, and the necessity of seizing the moment in the face of unfathomable eternity. It references Powell and Pressburger’s Stairway to Heaven. It invokes Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, for pete’s sake, with Bill and Ted challenging Death (William Sadler: Freeheld, Machete Kills) in the afterlife to a game for their very souls. Not chess, mind: Battleship. Then Clue. Then Twister. And then Bogus Journey gets even more deeply bizarre from there.
If you need to catch up, both films are available on all the usual streaming services and on physical media.
And now — 30 years and an eternity later — we are granted Bill & Ted Face the Music. Screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon (Now You See Me 2, Imagine That) of the first two movies return, which feels like a rare boon of creative continuity: Face the Music springs from the same demented minds that spawned these lovable losers-slash-saviors of humanity. But where to go after Bogus Journey? Spoiler for the 1991 movie: It ends with the boys having fulfilled their destiny of bringing harmony and tranquility for all humanity: world peace has been achieved, nuclear weapons have been dismantled, and Bill and Ted’s band, Wyld Stallyns, has even played on Mars. In the early 1990s! We were well into an alternate universe at the end of this non non non bogus journey.
But in Face the Music, set today, the world looks very much like our world today looks. No one mentions 9/11, endless wars, climate disasters, the orange tinpot in the White House, or anything of the sort, but the overall vibe that the movie dances around is this: The world of 2020 is in such a shitty state because Bill and Ted have, in fact, so far failed to achieve their destiny as peace-bringers inspiring global partying-on and eternal chill. The brief flowering of such in the 1990s was but a passing fluke. And the news from the future — brought not by Rufus (RIP George Carlin) but his daughter, Kelly (the fab Kristen Schaal: My Spy, Boundaries) — is worse. The now middle-aged and professionally washed-up Bill and Ted must save not only the future but “reality as we know it.” If they do not finally write the song that unites humanity forever, the universe itself will be destroyed. (I presume this is one of those fixed temporal points, unalterable no matter what time-travel chicanery one gets up to, that the Doctor oft speaks of.)
What this means, though, is that, basically, Matheson and Solomon have decided to retell a tale that has already been told rather than find some new direction to take the guys in. Bill and Ted, unable to replicate their musical success of the past, hustle through time trying to steal the humanity-saving song from their future selves, which — again, but more annoyingly this time — makes no sense on its on merits. Because if they willen have not performed the song in about an hour and a half, everything ends. So the song must have existed from almost the immediate future, but the guys keep going further and further into the future to find it. (No spoilers! I shan’t reveal whether or not they do find it in the future. I’m saying that if they were going to find it in the future, they should have found it, like, tomorrow. And there’s no hint in the script that it is merely Bill and Ted’s cheerful stupidity that prevents them from realizing this.) Meanwhile, their layabout, beats-loving 20something best-friend daughters — Billie (Brigette Lundy-Paine: Downsizing, Irrational Man) and Thea (Samara Weaving: Monster Trucks, Mystery Road) — are separately traveling through history gathering together an awesome band to perform the song once their dads have it. (I’ll leave you to discover which legendary musicians they gather.) Then, for Reasons, they also end up in the afterlife; Death makes another appearance.
It all feels very familiar. Almost tediously so. Nothing about it made me laugh until a full hour into the movie, and then only in passing. The daughters are as goofily charming as their dads still are — this is the saving grace of the movie — and are perhaps the first such doofusy female pair to appear in a (comparatively) big-budget studio film. But I’m not sure they feel like real young people of the 2020s in the same way that Bill and Ted felt like relatively authentic, only slightly caricatured 1980s teens. I mean, I’m sure Face the Music isn’t aimed at today’s youngsters but at nostalgic Xers like myself, who I’m sure would like to think their kids idolize them so much that they are like little spiritual clones of their parents. (I have no kids, so I have no stake in such a dynamic.) But how much more intriguing could Bill and Ted’s return have been if they’d had to contend with genuine-feeling Millennials rather than these pale Xer xeroxes?
Or! What if Bill and Ted’s princess-wives (here played by, respectively, Jayma Mays [American Made, The Smurfs 2] and Erinn Hayes [They Came Together]) — who are, recall, transplanted from six centuries in the past — were dealing with more significant issues than the fact that their husbands seem more into each other than them? There’s potentially so much to unpack in the web of these relationships, and yet the thing I am left with here is my usual feminist rage — which I’m really exhausted by and wish I didn’t have to engage with so regularly — at the fact that, suddenly, Bill and Ted’s female partners are 15 years younger than them, when in the earlier movies, they were played (by different actors in all three films) by women who were around the same age as them. Are there no 50something actresses who could have played the princess-wives? (Of course there are!)
Sure, I can see — on an intellectual level — something something about how GenX feels ineffectual and sidelined, how we’re looking to our kids to fix all that is wrong with the world that we failed to take real action on. I get that. But it feels like a bit more reality than Bill and Ted were ever meant to bring us.