An appreciation of the three Bill & Ted films starring Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves – namely Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) and Bill & Ted Face the Music (2020).
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) started the ball rolling with the strapline ‘history is about to be rewritten by two guys who can’t spell’ which sets up the premise pretty succinctly if a little unkindly. Bill S Preston Esquire and Ted Theodore Logan are more interested in their pie in the sky plans of forming a globally dominant rock band called Wyld Stallyns even though they can’t play their instruments and have no other band members, than learning about history. Problem is if they flunk their history class, they get kicked out of school and Ted will be sent to military school on Alaska. The two characters are likeable but a bit thick – for example when asked who Joan of Arc is, Ted replies ‘Noah’s wife?’
Some of the jokes are of a time, and in this film and the next there are clear signs of the homophobic attitudes that dominated a lot of teenage American comedies of that era. In both films this is most evident when the pair share a congratulatory hug and then immediately back off from one another and say ‘fag!’. It’s not nice to see and mars what is otherwise a very light-hearted comedy time-travel caper like a dumbed-down parody of Back to the Future mixed with Doctor Who (since the time machine is a phone booth). Given it’s made in 1989, the effects look mostly hand drawn and there’s a reliance on basic green screen and compositing. The effects are more cartoony than realistic.
Most of the humour resides in the performances of the two titular dudes and the historical figures (Billy the Kid, Socrates, Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Genghis Khan, Freud, Beethoven and Abraham Lincoln) they pick up along the way. Napoleon (Terry Camilleri also ‘man in bathtub’ in The Truman Show) has the most memorable screen time as he is taken to the mall for ice cream by Ted’s younger brother, then ten pin bowling and then finally escapes to a water park.
B&T are given a mission by a mentor from the future called Rufus (George Carlin, who died in 1998) to pass their history exam – actually a presentation in front of all their classmates in a public auditorium (and thankfully they’re last on the list of presenters) – so that they can stay together, learn guitar, form the band and change the world. In fact it transpires that the future civilisation Rufus has come from is based on Bill and Ted who are akin to legendary deities. Their catchphrases ‘be excellent to each other’ and ‘party on’ resonate through time it seems.
When all the historical figures are rounded up, they are broken out of the local jailhouse (overseen by Ted’s stern police chief father played by Hal Landon Jnr.) in a very inventive way. As long as the duo remember to use the time machine later on to steal Ted’s father’s keys they can hide them behind a sign post for them to find and use to unlock the prison cell doors. The same technique is used to plant a distracting tape recorder on a bookshelf in the station and to send a FAX (another sign of the times) to themselves to duck behind a desk at the right time to avoid detection while inside the station. Station! Sorry we’ll come to that. This final scene reminded me so much of the scene where Morpheus is texting Thomas Anderson (aka Neo) in The Matrix aiding his escape from agents in his office, that it surely must be a homage to this scene? Right? I like to think so.
Anyway the Wyld Stallyns triumph most excellently. The film is a hot mess but in a good way. Oh and while they’re not saving the world, they also get the girls in the form of two princesses from medieval England. I didn’t see this film when it came out at the cinema and so, not for the first time, was somewhat late to the party dudes.
Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) was my first introduction to the time-hopping duo and it hit a sweet spot where I was at university but had the money to see it twice with my pals and buy the soundtrack. The original rock tracks on the film’s soundtrack – released by Interscope and including ‘The Perfect Crime’ by Faith No More, ‘Tommy the Cat’ by Primus and ‘The Reaper’ by guitar legend Steve Vai – and the fact that Vai provided the incidental guitar riffs for Bill & Ted’s expressions of joy, were part and parcel of my enjoyment of the story. I was seriously into Faith No More and Vai at the time.
Also beside the cheap-looking foam latex costumes worn by the future dwellers, the filmmakers appeared to have a bigger budget and so upped the ante on the effects and in particular a full-body animatronic suit for the character Station – who starts off as two squat looking hairy gnomes but then fuses together to become the super intelligent robot engineer Martian giant with a huge space butt who makes good robots versions of Bill & Ted. The robots themselves are cleverly designed to disguise the performers underneath. As well as the return of Rufus and the introduction of Station, we get the new character of Death aka The Grim Reaper – played for full comedy effect by William Sadler.
Good robots? Yes well, they’re needed to fight the bad robot Bill & Ted sent by bad guy from the future De Nomolos (Rufus’s gym instructor played by real actor Joss Ackland) to assassinate Bill & Ted and thus change the future (like Terminator I guess). Bad robot Bill & Ted terrorise the princesses and do indeed kill Bill & Ted. But that’s where Death comes in to save them from hell and indeed helps team them up with Station. Death is very much in the Terry Pratchett style and again for me (who at the time was getting into his fantasy comedy Discworld series) this hit a sweet spot, even though at times I found him a bit annoying.
Following the structure of the first movie, perhaps a little too closely, the film climaxes in a battle of the bands concert where the Wyld Stallyns must play to unite the world. They’re last on the bill again which helps, giving them time to learn their instruments, assemble a band (including Death on bass, Station on bongos) and use the same sort of ‘well if I remember after this to plant this then we can get around this problem’ time travel logic to defeat the evil De Nomolos. Oh and future Bill & Ted turn up with baby Bill and baby Ted, having finally got their legs over the princesses.
Bill & Ted Face the Music (2020) was initially disregarded by me as the sequel no-one really needed. But, unlike that other sequel no-one needed The Matrix: Resurrections this is actually rather good and a great addition to the series. In fact I’d go as far as saying that it’s just as good as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey and maybe better than their Excellent Adventure, and it certainly has practical aging makeup effects for geriatric versions of Winter and Reeves on a par with those used on slap-boy’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith in the Matrix film. Bill & Ted are now middle-aged men with young adult children (I’ll come to that) so don’t need any aging effects to get them into their (supposed) 50s, but they do need it to appear as there much older selves later on.
And the story actually has three sets of pairs of time travellers in it. First we have Bill & Ted working against the clock in the time machine to try and figure out the lyrics and music for the song that will finally unite the world (the Wyld Stallyns globally broadcast performance in the Battle of the Bands not actually being the unifying event) and so visiting their future selves. the bulk of the comedy from the film comes from these character performances of Bill & Ted in various states of rock debauchery, including pumped up prison versions who compare very well to Ryan Reynold’s steriod bulk VFX in Free Guy.
Second we have Bill & Ted’s daughters – yes daughters – no-one said that B&T junior at the end of the last film were boys now did they? bear with me – they are Thea (i.e. Theadore aka Ted) played by Samara Weaving and Billie (aka Bill) played most bodaciously by the less familiar Brigette Lundy-Paine – travelling through time picking up band members (including Hendrix, Mozart and Louis Armstrong) to form the new supergroup version of the Wyld Stallyns to perform the song once their fathers have discovered it. There are hints of Jay & Silent Bob Reboot about this, but only faint hints and Lundy-Paine is just so funny as a female version of the original dude Ted that any similarity in the dynamic is forgiven.
Third we have Bill and Ted’s wives, whose actors have been swapped out for younger models it seems in the form of Erinn Hayes (don’t know her) and Jayma Mays (who seems to pop up whenever a female comedy actor is required for a mid-budget film). This recasting left a bit of bad taste in my mouth and so while there’s no mention of ‘fags’ in this movie we’re still seeing the sexism both in the casting and the story – I say this because this third time travelling duo, who are out to try and find a pair of Bill & Ted’s they see a positive future with, get very minimal screen time. Yes it is not necessary for the progression of the story, and you know that at the end of the film they’re going to say ‘we’re happy with this reality’, but still… I dunno, am I being too overly sensitive about this? Also none of these films pass that test where the female characters have a meaningful conversation which is not about the principal male characters… Anyway moving on.
The film also includes some fun call backs to the previous films (indeed some of the VFX seem to be done purposely badly to ape the older films). Rufus is replaced by his daughter Kelly (the most excellent Kristen Schaal) acting in defence of the duo against the wishes of her mother The Great Leader (Holland Taylor) and Death returns to resolve his differences with the Wyld Stallyns and once more rescue them from hell. Ted’s father and indeed his brother (who has joined the police) also feature. It’s a shame there wasn’t room for the most awesome return of Station, but we do get a new character in the form of Dennis Caleb McCoy (Anthony Carrigan) – a killer robot sent by The Great Leader to kill Bill & Ted.
Dennis Caleb McCoy is a joy to watch – such a funny character – ah I give the performance a chef’s kiss! Having messed up a couple of times in his assassination assignment, Dennis undergoes a crisis of confidence and tries to help rather than kill B&T. It’s comedy gold. Not the first funny ‘human robot’ we’ve ever seen (Marvin the Paranoid Android from the TV show / film The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy probably gets that award) but very funny nonetheless.