Bill and Ted of “Excellent Adventure” fame captured an era and an age in movies paying homage to the teenage slackerdom that defined a generation, which is why it’s somewhat jarring to see the franchise get a sequel some 30 years later — but also so illuminating.
Despite what many fans might think, they're not stoner dudes in disguise. Nor are they full-on Valley or surfer-boy types.
“Bill and Ted Face the Music,” out Friday, does just as its title promises, exploring the life of characters that seemed too of-their-time to make a modern day resurgence but are actually all the more compelling for fully embracing their older selves — as witnesses to what life, and history, gives us as it continues to unfold, ready for it or not.
In the third installment, Bill and Ted are no longer the happy-go-lucky kids they once were. (That role is reserved for their peppy daughters.) Indeed, the far-fetched time-travel plots of the films only reinforce the realities of true life.
The metalheads have grown up adrift in a world where their music hasn't been embraced despite the prophecy in earlier movies that it would be. Since there are plenty of real-life Gen Xers with bands or other pursuits that never made it and are still trying to figure out what to do, the goofiness of Bill and Ted speaks to the way in which many of the people who grew up watching them have themselves refused to grow up. The movie’s sense of instability is easy to relate to — particularly as middle-age people today have found even stable professions shaken by the economic roller coaster of the last 20 years, culminating in the pandemic crisis.
But there’s a flip side to the midlife malaise and joint couples therapy that Bill and Ted are stuck in, which also reveals a hidden truth for much of Gen X: They don’t get the credit they deserve. Bill and Ted are slacker dudes hovering around 50 who have managed, despite their own cluelessness, to embark on successful time travel adventures and even cheat Death himself before he became one of their band members.
True, they generally succeed in life through dumb luck and a serendipitous confluence of events, but they're smarter than they’re perceived to be and often surprise us. Despite what many fans might think, they're not stoner dudes in disguise. Nor are they full-on Valley or surfer-boy types. Writers Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson confirmed this long ago, and Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves said they landed the roles because they didn't play them as stoners or airheads.
They're actually really sweet guys who are nice to everyone they encounter no matter how tweaked or crazy they are. (Except their evil alternate selves, whom they battle in the second film.) They are endearing characters because they are not malicious or angry. (OK, they get a bit testy in this one, but they’re 30 years older, dude.) Their amiability is a big reason why many fans will likely indulge in this sequel. And their approach to life could be what we need right now.
The major directive of the new installment, after all, is that Bill S. Preston, Esq. (Winter) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Reeves) are the leaders of the band Wyld Stallyns, which includes their wives, Joanna and Elizabeth (Jayma Mays and Erinn Hayes), and have it in their hands to craft the epic song that brings about world peace and creates universal harmony. That was and is a very ’80s notion. We could use some of that high-minded optimism in these dark times.
A quick recap on how they got to this point. In “Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure” (1989), an emissary from the future, Rufus (portrayed by the late George Carlin), taught the two SoCal buddies how to travel through time so that they could collect “personages of historical significance” to ace their high school history report, graduate and move on to their loftier musical goals.
In “Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey” (1991), maniacal, mechanical clones from the future come to kill them and undo the predicted future success of their band. But with the help of Death (William Sadler) and a brilliant, heavenly alien named Station, they strike back at their alter egos. (With clever cinematic tributes to auteurs ranging from Ingmar Bergman to Tim Burton, “Bogus” is superior.)
In “Face the Music,” Rufus' daughter Kelly (Kristen Schaal) comes from the future to warn them that they have only 77 minutes to finally write that epic song that will unite everyone and everything, or the fabric of space and time as we know it will come undone. Most unfortunate.
To save everything in time, Bill and Ted flash forward into different points in the future to find where their future selves wrote the great song of universal harmony, if they can. (Time travel uses up real time minutes, so the race is on.) This time, their music-scholar daughters Theodora "Thea" Preston (Samara Weaving) and Wilhelmina "Billie" Logan (Brigette Lundy-Paine) journey separately back through the aeons to assemble the ultimate band — including everyone from a Stone Age drummer to Jimi Hendrix — for their most honorable dads.
Despite a slow-going first act, the movie and humor pick up once the time-travel segments kick in. (Post-credits tip: Stick around.) The cameo by grunge rocker Dave Grohl is fun, and who knew rapper Kid Cudi was so well versed in quantum physics? Further, modern digital effects show the future, the disrupted present and Hell in most outstanding fashion.
Underneath the silliness of it all, the Bill and Ted movies have always had a positive message about uniting people through the power of music.
Underneath the silliness of it all, the Bill and Ted movies have always had a positive message about uniting people through the power of music. It's been said that the films have a deluded sense of optimism, but at a time when Mike Judge’s prescient sci-fi comedy “Idiocracy” from 2006 —in which our future country has literally become governed by idiots— has become tragically realistic, we could use a dose of bodacious and nonheinous fun to help us lighten up a bit before things really do get cray-cray in the real world in 2020.
“Face the Music” isn't a classic for the ages, but it has its funny moments. Bill and Ted have never been about providing all the answers anyway. They're just here to show us the way, dudes.