Lest you’ve forgotten, the Bill & Ted movies—1989’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and 1991’s Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey—were never exactly exercises in deep thought. I’m actually not big on re-watching early chapters of franchises when the latest film comes out, but for professional reasons, I had to watch the previous two Bill & Ted movies just before diving into the decades-in-the-making Bill & Ted Face the Music, and a few things leaped out at me that I’d forgotten. The same screenwriters, Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, wrote all three entries, and this makes it easy to continue themes and build on existing ones without relying entirely on nostalgia mining.
The secret weapons of Face the Music are two fold. The first is director Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest), whose knowing sense of humor about genre filmmaking seems right at home in this time travel universe. The second is that neither the writers nor the director seem too concerned with the butterfly effect of time traveling to the past (the way the Back to the Future movies were), and that’s fine by me, considering another film coming out next week maybe cares about it so much, it made my head hurt. With 30 years having passed, a lot has changed in Bill & Ted’s lives, and some things haven’t.
The boys (Keanu Reeves as Ted and Alex Winter as Bill) have matured and gotten a bit smarter about life in general, thanks to the patience and love of their princess wives (now played by Jayma Mays and Erion Hayes), who get their own truncated story arc about traveling forward in time to see what their husbands become before deciding if they want to stay with them in the present. Things are a little strained in everyone’s lives, with the film beginning at a joint couples counseling session with a therapist, played by Jillian Bell, who makes the audacious suggestion that maybe the couples take turns meeting with her. They also have one daughter each (Samara Weaving as Thea and Brigette Lundy-Paine as Billie), both of whom are brilliant music scholars but only so-so players, much like their fathers were at their age.
In this midst of this personal chaos, a strange visitor from the future arrives, Kelly (Kristen Schaal, playing the daughter of George Carlin’s Rufus, from the original films), to warn Bill and Ted that they have about 75 minutes to write the long-foretold song that is meant to save the very fabric of space and time from falling apart. So clearly the stakes are much higher than they were in the first two movies. Since their band Wyld Stallyns has lost its fan base and fallen apart, rather than buckle down and write this epic song, Bill and Ted decide to take Kelly’s time machine and go to the future, presumably to a point after the song was written and simply steal it from themselves.
In order to help their dads play the song once they know what it sounds like, the girls go back in time to assemble the greatest collection of musicians the world has ever seen from all points in history, including guitarist extraordinaire Jimi Hendrix; jazz pioneer Louis Armstrong; creator of the bamboo flute and the founder of music in ancient China Ling Lun; composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; a cavewoman percussionist named Grom; and, from the present, hip-hop artist Kid Cudi (the only member playing himself).
Although Face the Music does still prominently feature a certain phone booth and the Circuits of Time look remarkably similar (not to mention the film features an endearing nod to Carlin), the most welcome return to the fold is the Bogus Journey character of Death (a returning, still brilliant William Sadler). When we meet Death again, he’s still bitter about being kicked out as Wyld Stallyns’ bass player for thinking it was okay to play 40-minute solos in the middle of shows. He is now the epitome of the overly sensitive creative type with an easily bruised male ego and a core made up entirely of insecurities.
Bill and Ted’s stops in the future are not what they expect, as they meet increasingly bitter and more resentful versions of themselves who are mad at the younger Bill and Ted for trying to take the easy way to saving the universe. The sequences underscore some of the film’s updated messages about hitting your 50s and still not having realized your potential—professionally, as husbands, and certainly as fathers.
Ironically, it probably won’t be difficult to get used to the idea that the fabric of the universe is falling apart as you likely watch this film from the comfort of your home during a pandemic. Not to give too much away, but it’s refreshing to view the film as a testament to the belief that young people will ultimately save the day—a belief that is reflected in the real world and in the first two Bill & Ted movies. I love that the movie centers on the bond between fathers and daughters (Kelly’s eagerness to see her father’s prophecy and legacy protected is endearing).
While it’s nice to see a few familiar characters from the earlier films—Ted’s dad Chief Logan (Hal Landon Jr.); Amy Stoch as Missy; and Ted’s younger brother Deacon (now played by SNL’s Beck Bennett)—the funniest new character is a robot sent to kill the future-hopping Bill and Ted who eventually becomes sentient and believes his name is Dennis Caleb McCoy (Anthony Carrigan, from HBO’s “Barry”). I’ll say no more about him, but he does murder a great number of people during the course of the film.
I think it’s fair to say two things about the humor in Bill & Ted Face the Music: the film isn’t as funny as its predecessors, and it isn’t meant to be. The writers and stars clearly wanted Bill and Ted to land somewhere more grownup with this sendoff, which may disappoint those whose only goal is to get stoned/drunk/both and giggle through this movie. There are still a great number of laughs, some very silly special effects, and plot turns that are flat-out ridiculous, but it’s all done under the umbrella of illustrating a bit more maturity (if not subtlety). Reeves and Winter would look foolish playing the same characters they did in the early 1990s. Instead, Bill and Ted are now men who want to be better humans who might say “Be excellent to each other” but really mean “Be kind to each other”—another message we’re desperately in need of this year, especially this week. If you have an affection for these characters, Face the Music will likely be the perfect goodbye (presumably); if not, it still works as a breezy tale of two middle-aged men discovering what they are, what they aren’t, and what they have inspired.
The film will be available Friday to watch theatrically, at drive-ins, and on VOD.
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