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Non-Review Review: Bill & Ted Face the Music

Bill and Ted Face the Music is a solid legacy sequel, if not a spectacular one.

The third Bill and Ted movie has been in the works for a long time. It has been gestating for years in various states, driven by the enthusiasm of writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, and stars Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter. Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey had the relative good fortune to arrive only two years after Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but Bill and Ted Face the Music emerges after a thirty-year gap in which the original films have gone from charming curiosities to bona fides cult classics.

Old friends.

This is to say that Bill and Ted Face the Music faces a challenge that is every bit as impossible as that facing the eponymous heroes. Providing a fitting capstone to a franchise that has grown from humble beginnings to legendary status is a monumental task, on par with trying to unite the world through music. Indeed, perhaps the smartest thing about Bill and Ted Face the Music is the way in which it recognises that the task it has set itself and its two leads is insurmountable.

Bill and Ted Face the Music is a charming film, one that largely coasts on the delightful ironic earnestness of its two lead protagonists and a sincere affection for all of its characters. It’s hard to resist Bill and Ted Face the Music, with its playfulness and its breezy sensibility. However, the film doesn’t entirely work. It struggles with pacing, it struggles to anchor its ensemble together, and it often feels like it is trying to do far too much within its modest (but nimble) eighty-minute runtime. Bill and Ted Face the Music won’t save the world, but might make it a little happier.

Music to my ears.

Bill and Ted Face the Music is transparently a nostalgia project. The film opens with footage of Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and they segues through to the end of Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. The goal doesn’t seem to be to bring the audience up to speed – there’s plenty of exposition to serve that purpose later on – but instead to ease them back into this world and to evoke the warm memories of Ted “Theodore” Logan and William S. “Bill” Preston, Esquire.

Of course, the past can only be invoked, it can never be recreated. There is something just a little bit uncanny about Bill and Ted Face the Music, which makes sense as a movie displaced three decades in time. Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey was a pleasure on a lot of levels, but it was especially impressive as a piece of practical movie-making, built around matte paintings, physical sets and elaborate costumes.

Park it there.

The budget and time constraints on the production of Bill and Ted Face the Music would have precluded such an approach, even if movie-making hadn’t largely moved past practical effects. To the film’s credit, there are clearly some nice sets and some impressive make-up and costuming, particularly on Anthony Carrigan’s insecure time-travelling robot assassin and some of Bill and Ted’s various future selves. However, it is hard to articulate just how strange it is to see Bill and Ted moving through computer-generated spaces and facing computer-generated effects.

Then again, this might be the point. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure was built around the improbable joke of its two teenage slacker protagonists uniting the world – an affectionate punchline that played off the media’s obsession with Generation X as a group of layabouts and losers. The joke was that American life was relatively stable and safe, that modern generations had access to luxuries and opportunities that really didn’t suggest a narrative of struggle or triumph like that which faced the Greatest Generation or the Baby Boomers.

A familiar song.

Despite its genial nature and affectionate playing, Bill and Ted Face the Music finds that the joke has become a tragedy. The stakes in the movie are profound. Bill and Ted are tasked with saving “reality as we know it” and preventing “the end of space and time.” This concept was absurd in the late eighties and early nineties, as America emerged from the end of the Cold War into an era of prosperity and triumph. The stakes seem a lot more tangible today, in a post-truth world where reality itself seems to be up for grabs.

That’s a surprising amount of weight to heap on a feel-good comedy. Bill and Ted Face the Music never directly acknowledges the real-world context for this, but it is implicit. It’s notable that the historical superband constructed in Bill and Ted Face the Music is appreciably more diverse than the group assembled in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, uniting Jimi Henrix, Louie Armstrong, Kid Kudi, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ling Lun. It’s a notable acknowledgement of the diverse history of music.

Waaaay off base…

Similarly, the closing montage cannot help but evoke this particular moment – when Bill and Ted Face the Music is arriving on streaming rather than in cinemas. Footage of people dancing and performing in isolation or in small groups informs the strange feeling of the moment, the sense of what it feels like to be alone with everybody. The words “pandemic” or “coronavirus” are never uttered, and yet it weighs on the movie. Of course the idea of a single shared song, of commune and harmony, is a fantasy in these most fraught times.

To give writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon the credit they deserve, Bill and Ted Face the Music is well-positioned to explore this idea. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure was in many ways a wry parody of the theory of “the Great Man of History”, both in positioning the unlikely Bill and Ted as the Most Excellent Men of History, but in also dropping several such historical figures like Napoleon and Lincoln into late eighties California and demonstrating that they probably wouldn’t be especially notable there. (To quote Ted’s brother Deacon of Napoleon, “He’s a dick.”)

You’ve got to be Kid Cudi-ing me.

So Bill and Ted Face the Music is built around the punchline to the joke that Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure was set up. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure was written at a time when nobody seemed to expect anything of Generation X, and so their place in history could be played for a laugh. Bill and Ted Face the Music arrives at a point where the tables have turned, and everybody is obsessed with the importance of Generation X. What does it look like to be told that you have to save the world after decades of being told that you’d never amount to anything.

There’s something charmingly sincere in how Bill and Ted Face the Music approaches the legacy of the slacker generation. “I’ve been wanting to meet you my whole life,” states the time-travelling Kelly. Ted sighs, “It must be very disappointing.” Dragged in front of a futuristic tribunal and asked what they have to say for one another, all Bill and Ted can offer are platitudes. “Be excellent to each other,” Bill states. “Party on, dudes,” Ted continues. The jury is not impressed with the recycled soundbytes. This is a generational reckoning, like Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi.

They are just ripping themselves off.

However, over the course of Bill and Ted Face the Music, Bill and Ted are repeatedly confronted with alternative future versions of themselves, all of which seem to suggest alternate possibilities for the wayward and listless youths: the washed-up tribute act desperately avoiding responsibility, the poseurs living a life that they’ve stolen from somebody far more successful, the angry and resentful punks who seem to hate themselves as much as anything. Bill and Ted Face the Music argues that maybe the lives Bill and Ted are living aren’t their worst lives.

Bill and Ted Face the Music argues that what initially seemed like weaknesses of Generation X might be strengths. Early assessments of the generation argued that “down deep, what frustrates today’s young people is their failure to create an original youth culture.” While that’s not entirely fair, there was perhaps some truth to it. After all, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure has Bill and Ted literally sampling from previous generations for their history presentation, and both earlier films draw heavily from a wide range of influences.

Stick around.

Bill and Ted Face the Music seems to suggest that perhaps Bill and Ted’s modesty might be their saving grace, their willingness to accept that maybe they can’t shoulder the weight of the world alone. The entire plot is predicated on the idea that Bill and Ted plan to find the song to save reality by travelling forward in time and stealing it from their future selves who have already written it. This, incidentally, provides a nice thematic mirror to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, sending the characters forward in time rather than backwards.

Bill and Ted Face the Music is very interested in how Bill and Ted relate to the people around them, particularly other generations. The pair are still trying to make peace with Jonathan Logan, Ted’s father, who is still insisting that pair need to “get real jobs.” At the same time, they are trying to be the husbands that their wives need them to be and the fathers that their daughters need. Indeed, Bill and Ted Face the Music suggests that Bill and Ted’s greatest legacy might be their daughters – Wilhelmina (“Billie”) and Theodora (“Thea”).

Not quite excellent, but party on nonetheless…

Bill and Ted Face the Music is a legacy sequel, and so the idea of passing the torch is baked into the film. Billie and Thea are interesting characters, conceptually. They are well-played by Brigette Lundy-Paine and Samara Weaving.  There’s something clever in the way that the pair have inherited their fathers’ happy-go-lucky attitude and distinct verbal cadence, while also having a much more sophisticating understanding of the world. However, they are part of the biggest structural problem with Bill and Ted Face the Music.

For its first two acts, Bill and Ted Face the Music is bifrurcated. The main plot follows Bill and Ted as they try to find the song that will unite the world. The secondary plot follows Billie and Thea as they embark on their own quest to help. In the grand tradition of legacy sequels like Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, this means having the new characters literally follow in the elder generation’s footsteps. Bill and Ted Face the Music has Billie and Thea move through their own truncated versions of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.

The original pod couple.

It’s an idea that works better in theory than in practice, because it means continuously having to cut away from Bill and Ted dealing with their complicated futures in order to follow their daughters as they recreate the past. The problem is somewhat compounded by the revelation that Bill and Ted’s wives – Princess Joanna and Princess Elizabeth – are having their own completely separate adventure that is largely off-screen as well. It undermines the rhythm of the movie; just as Bill and Ted Face the Music seems to be settling into itself, it skips a beat.

Still, despite this unevenness and overstuffedness, Bill and Ted Face the Music has a lot of charm to it. It’s good to get to hang out with Bill and Ted again, not out of any particularly strong nostalgia, but because Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves are two intensely likable actors playing two lovable characters. It’s great to have William Sadler returning as Death, complete with his delightful absurd Swedish accent and chronic insecurity. (Indeed, if anything, the return of Death makes the insecure robot assassin feel redundant.)

Bill and Ted Face the Music doesn’t quite match the highs of Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey or the youthful zeal of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but it serves its two leads well. It allows them their final bow with grace and dignity, and celebrates the endearing modesty of its two most excellent protagonists.

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