‘Bill & Ted’ Return to Right the Wrongs of the Past

‘Face the Music’ offers cinematic escapism and slacker wisdom: ‘Be excellent to each other.’

Upon observing the interior of a shopping mall in San Dimas, California, it was Sigmund Freud who said: “You all seem to be suffering from a mild form of hysteria.” High-1980s exuberance looked like that.

In Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) we meet many worthy souls from across history. All have been gathered by a pair of high school students — the llama-eyed Bill S. Preston Esq. (Alex Winter) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves). Bill and Ted have hauled them to the present in their Tardis-like time-travelling telephone booth.

The Bill and Ted series, now completed with Bill & Ted Face the Music, is resolutely about nothing but the great friendship between a couple of landlocked-surfer types. Reeves, like Sean Penn, is a great practitioner of the SoCal accent, a loose-jointed ambler and drawler. The good-hearted boneheads — talent-free would-be rockstars, the core of the garage band Wyld Stallyns — kidnap the historical figures to help Ted ace the history final so he doesn’t have to go to military school.

Ted has a lot to learn. Who’s Joan of Arc? Noah’s wife? (The Maid of Orleans is endearingly played by the Go-Go’s Jane Wiedlin, another one of these time travellers finding the suburban mall a source of magic and possibility.)

The historical crew is like one of Bob Dylan’s 10-minute-long mid-1960s name-dropping songs (“Ma Rainey and Beethoven once unwrapped their bedroll…”). What’s particularly imaginative is the oddly easy way Billy the Kid and Socrates get along like old friends.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure has demonstrated more staying power than other pairings of ’80s and ’90s slacker dudes: Beavis and Butthead, Garth and Wayne, Bob and Doug McKenzie. Maybe it’s because this series gives a particularly broad version of the solipsistic kid’s worldview. All of human history and the supernatural realms are focussed on an Inland Empire suburb.

An easy answer for the dull question: “What sequels are better than their original?” is Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991). It’s a satire of The Terminator; the two are pursued by a time-travelling villain (Joss Ackland, so vast of jaw that he could have played the part of Thanos without makeup). This monster created a pair of androids that look like our heroes, to destroy their position in the future, where Bill and Ted are venerated as musicians who brought the universe together.  

This is of the few buddy-movies that includes the Grim Reaper (a wonderful William Sadler), one more supernatural figure overwhelmed by the two innocents. Key to the lightness of this comedy is the way Death has his own little journey. The grim chess player of the Seventh Seal, now plays for souls at Twister and Clue. Everyone remembers the German-accented rap Death has — “Whether you’re a king or a little street sweeper…”. Fewer recall the Grim Reaper’s big theatrical gasp of horror seeing Bill and Ted’s princesses tied up in a death trap. 

Making the future female in the new Bill & Ted Face the Music is just one of the many good ideas in this (literal) getting-the-band-back-together comedy. It identifies two weak spots in the series so far: the women didn’t get enough to do, and the now-middle aged boys, able to skip back and forth in time, haven’t paid enough dues. Rather than universe uniters and arena rockers, they’re has-beens: the kind of performers who people walk out on once they plug in their instruments. They’re seen playing the latest wedding for Missy (Amy Stoch), whose prediction for hooking up with Bill and Ted’s relatives has made a pair of wreaths out of their family trees. B and T celebrate the marriage with a concerto performed with room-clearing instruments and vocal styles: bagpipes, theremins and Tuvan throat-singing. 

Even Bill and Ted’s princess brides have had about enough. The only ones left with faith in them are their daughters — “Little Bill” Wilhelmina (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and “Little Ted” Thea (Samara Weaving), last seen as babies being carried like papooses at the end of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey

A herald from the future (Kirsten Schall) warns Bill and Ted that space-time will collapse if they don’t get it together and create the epochal song that will unite all humanity. They’re given a literal ticking clock (a pocket watch) to finish the job. But the universe’s Great Leader (Holland Taylor) knows of a heresy that the deaths of Bill and Ted is the event that will unite all the planets. She sends out a neurotic killbot (Anthony Carrigan) to finish them off.

A lot of this comedy is about failure. Crossed timelines result in Bill and Ted encountering future versions of themselves: burly wrathful jailbirds, sad sacks playing an open mic, pot-bellied and bald alcoholic ruins. A late encounter have Bill and Ted hugging their nigh-dead elderly selves — without saying “Fag!” this time. Series creators Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon script a keen satire of the apology dialogue that lesser screenwriters come up with for poignant dying-dad movies.  

The daughters voyage through time to collect a multi-culti all-star band including Louis Armstrong (Jeremiah Craft, charming in the part) and the 10,000 year old cave woman (Patty Anne Miller) who invented percussion. During a short time in hell, they encounter a former member of Wyld Stallyns, brooding over his hurt feelings and the critical failure of his all-bass album Pale on Pale

That’s one thing about 2020: Death certainly looks good. As he reprises a nearly 30 year old role, Sadler deserves acknowledgement for creating such a strangely affectionate, don’t-fear-the-Reaper view of Death. It’s as welcome a comeback as we’ve had in the movies for years. And times have gotten so fractious that something as dumb as “Be excellent to each other” sounds practically like wisdom.  

Face the Music was shot in the South (New Orleans’ Preservation Hall is one location); the scrubbiness and aggressively gauche minimansions of Florida make the future look alienating. The world music angle shows Bill and Ted have been learning something — it’s not all about Steve Vai licks anymore. And while this isn’t as smooth or as funny a 90-minute romp as the last one, it has a bit more depth.

The weight of age is in it. It’s the best-cast effort in the series: Schall has the perfect acrid and perplexed face for a story this twisty. Jillian Bell is rich as a flabbergasted marriage counselor, and Lundy-Paine and Weaving get to be maidens who outwit Death. Bill & Ted Face the Music strikes one as a sweet and melancholy comedy, a consolation and a glimpse of hope. It’s a good moral: where the father fails, the daughter may succeed.

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