BILL & TED FACE THE MUSIC: a welcome return for two excellent! old friends

★ ★ ★

The good news is that while Bill & Ted Face the Music isn’t excellllllent!, it certainly is far from bogus.

Frankly, it should have been. Resurrecting a series almost three decades after the previous picture is hardly a recipe often for success. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey are so inextricably tethered to the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that the idea those characters, and that world, could be revived seems unfathomable. Surely too much has changed? Are we not too cynical to embrace the sweet-natured, MTV generation, latent stoner-kid reverie of films that could not more epitomise the comfort of America’s cultural hegemony at the end of the 20th century if they tried? As it turns out, that is kind of why Bill Preston and Ted Logan’s third outing works so well.

The original films were infused with innocence, trading on established cultural cliches that Western audiences understood and appreciated. Bill and Ted were less dim-witted than amiable, optimistic teenagers who simply wanted to play music, hang out and be excellent to each other, and those films pointedly project their kind, collegiate mindset in the direction of a utopian future that seemed achievable to an America sailing out of the long Cold War. Bill and Ted literally inspired a future build on concepts of friendship, goodness and learning, almost antithetically to their middle-class ‘dude bro’ avoidance of school and learning, which underscored the point: being yourselves, being happy, partying on and caring for one another can make a better future.

It therefore fits that Bill & Ted Face the Music, thirty years on into a decaying century, actively attempts to throw such a utopian mindset in doubt, but counters the prevailing mood by suggesting we can, actually, do better.

Truthfully, Bill & Ted Face the Music is stronger conceptually than both on the page or in terms of direction.

Dean Parisot has tainted his directorial legacy in recent years with execrable action fare such as the Red pictures, but we must remember this is the man who shepherded the wonderful Galaxy Quest to the screen. He did not helm the first two Bill & Ted movies—that was Stephen Herek and Peter Hewitt respectively, both of whom maintained an impressive thematic and tonal consistency—but he brings the charm and warmth of Galaxy Quest into Face the Music, even if his picture lacks the verve of that inventive sci-fi pastiche and indeed the exuberance of Excellent Adventure or Bogus Journey. This third film is a touch slower, a touch less wild, but no less consistent. What Parisot lacks in technical acumen, his film compensates for in tone.

By that logic, it isn’t worth too deeply examining the script either, one which original writers Ed Solomon & Chris Matheson spent a decade working on. Akin to the first film, which Face the Music most clearly seeks to emulate, the narrative is constructed on a paradox. “The story only makes sense at the end” they hear from beyond the grave thanks to George Carlin’s departed Rufus, and this is the key to the Bill & Ted films. They are intentionally playful and never expect to entirely make sense. Think back to Bogus Journey’s resolution, as they trap Joss Ackland’s violent utopian insurgent in a temporally-influenced cage which defines the ‘chicken and egg’ scenario. Face the Music isn’t ever quite as clever, rehashing gags and ideas from the previous two pictures, but it does so with a comforting awareness. It knows why you’re here and is designed to indulge your nostalgia for Bill & Ted’s youthful adventures.

In that sense, Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter are a delight throughout, slipping back into two of their most iconic roles with a middle-aged grace and ease which belies the distance between their appearances. I kept thinking back to Dumb and Dumber Too, which actually does a disservice to the raw comedic smarts of the original movie, despite how Jim Carrey & Jeff Daniels manage to recapture their roles. Face the Music avoids such a fate in no small part due to Reeves and Winter understanding that Bill & Ted shouldn’t change, much as the story initially sees them having marriage problems with their English medieval princess wives. One suspects the wives’ appearances and sub-plot suffered in the edit, as the script focuses instead on two voyages in the past and future to construct a narrative which only just makes sense, and ends rather abruptly.

The pleasure of Face the Music is, perhaps appropriately, in the journey. Samara Weaving and Bridgette Lundy-Paine are pleasant in the easy gag of daughters who reflect their fathers (a joke you suspect ten or twenty years ago would have been cast as sons), and seeing William Sadler back as his sombre, Germanic take on Death is a joy (indeed the film, enjoyably, brings back original actors from the earlier films where it can).

Yet said journey lacks the underlying socio-political commentary that gave Bill & Ted’s earlier adventures edge. Excellent Adventure was about two rocker boys whose innocence births an entire culture, Bogus Journey in how their passage through the beyond resolves to protect said culture from corruption, but Face the Music merely focuses on the implosion of a utopian future that looks less ridiculous and more alien this time around. It doesn’t quite feel like a perfect future as worth saving.

Maybe that’s the point. Maybe Face the Music is as much about us facing the music as Bill and Ted do, about our world today. Our heroes might be middle-aged, and the film plays on the possibility of their growing decay and selfish abandon as they sunder any hope for a better future, but Bill and Ted are a fixed point. Resolution is nonetheless the order of the day, with even Ted’s father coming to realise Ted’s musical aspirations and magical journeys were real, all the while he hoped to pack his son off to a military school that represented a dark, unhappy path for youth which strangleholds expression and culture.

Yet the film doesn’t offer any template or forward vision for what Bill and Ted are saving the world for. They safeguard a future that no longer seems possible, rather than edge closer to it. Hope is felt throughout, and kindness, and joy, but the innocence is almost quaint.

Bill & Ted Face the Music might, therefore, be hollow, but it could be necessary. Its message about union, across races and indeed time, is filled with a positivity we need cinema to imbue. If we have learned nothing from these dudes in the last three decades, it’s that we still need to be far more excellent to each other. Maybe that’s their legacy.

Bill & Ted Face the Music is in UK cinemas from September 23rd.

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Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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