Saturday, August 29, 2020

Bill and Ted's Most Triumphant Return: Bill and Ted Face the Music


Bill & Ted Face the Music was released yesterday, and it gave me a chance to do something I haven't done in several months: review a newly-released movie.

I've been a huge fan of Bill and Ted for 31 years. I was the type of nerd who didn't really need a time machine to do my history report, but I would've loved one. I was in my early to mid teens when the first movies came out, and they were just about the most excellent thing I had ever seen.

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey manage to be both goofy and fun but also science fictionally and philosophically interesting. Socrates is a character in the first movie, and I show a clip to students whenever I teach Plato. These movies tell some of the most coherent time-travel stories around.

I realize this sounds like the sort of exaggeration people who write about popular culture are prone to engage in, but it's true: Bill and Ted had a part in shaping who I am. I do really try to live by their (and Abraham Lincoln's) favorite slogan: "Be excellent to each other. And party on, dudes!"

(It's worth noting that there are some ways in which the original movies aren't as excellent as they should be, especially in several instances of the kind of casual homophobia that was disturbingly common in the 80's and 90's. Being excellent means recognizing ways you can be more excellent.).

I admit that when I first heard a latter-day sequel was coming out decades after 1991's Bogus Journey, I didn't know what to think. At least it wasn't going to be a reboot. And then I read a bit about how the original writers were on board and that Alex Winter (Bill) and Keanu Reeves (Ted) were excited about it.

I've been excited for Bill & Ted Face the Music for a couple years now. It was the summer movie I was most looking forward to in 2020.

And then the pandemic happened.

It was bogus I couldn't watch this in a theater, but the video-on-demand option was at the very least non-heinous. I might even look into the drive-in options near me.

But what about the movie? Is it any good?

I found it to be most excellent. I don't think I've ever smiled for 90 minutes straight before.

I admit a lot of it was powered by my deep nostalgia for Bill and Ted. If you don't have that, I can't guarantee you'll love this movie as much as I did. Bringing Bill and Ted to 2020 could have been a heinous dumpster fire, but they pulled it off most triumphantly.

We meet Bill and Ted as 50-ish men still married to the princesses from the previous films and with 20-something daughters who are a little too much like their dads. Samara Weaving and Brigitte Lundy-Paine do a great job portraying exactly what you'd think Bill and Ted's daughters would be like (Lundy-Paine in particular has exactly the same look on her face as Keanu Reeves did 30 years ago). Another amusing part of the plot involves Missy (Amy Stoch) marrying Ted's younger brother Deacon (the one who was supposed to watch Napoleon in the first movie, now played by SNL's Beck Bennett). Another great thing: Death (William Sadler), the underworld's premiere bassist, makes a triumphant return.

Remember that Bill and Ted's band Wyld Stallyns was supposed to create a most bodacious utopian future where everyone is excellent and spends a lot of time chilling to triumphant guitar riffs while floating around futuristic chambers. But we learn though a series of headlines that things didn't turn out quite as Bill and Ted and those chill future dudes hoped it would. So another expedition from the future (now with 2020 computer graphics) led by Rufus's (George Carlin, RIP) daughter (Kristin Schaal) comes back to light a fire under Bill and Ted to fulfill their destiny.

The rest of the plot is a lot of fun, if a bit convoluted (but no more convoluted than Bogus Journey). I don't want to spoil anybody's fun, so I'll stop there.

I'll say a little bit about why I like the time-travel element of this movie, and a bit about its core message.

Most Hollywood movies that involve time travel become incoherent rather quickly. I've written a lot about time travel in the past (see here and here, for example). Most "time travel" movies, especially those that involve the idea of changing the past, are really more about travel to different universes. Or at least that's the only way I can make sense of the very idea of "changing the past."

The Bill and Ted movies involve some of the strange things that time travel brings up, like time loops. My favorite example in the first film is when Bill says that at some point in the future he will go back in the past and hide his dad's keys right where he needs them in the present. In Face the Music, our most excellent duo concoct a plan to go to the future and steal a song from their future selves that will save the universe, thus attempting to create a tidy time loop (this is spoiled in the trailer, so I don't mind spoiling it here). Time loops are weird for those of us who only travel forward in time at the rate of one second per second, but I contend that they are perfectly coherent once you give up any sort of temporal bias that causation must flow from past to future.

There's one thing these movies do that doesn't make much sense from the science side, but makes sense from the fiction side: there's inexplicably a countdown based on time in the present. In Face the Music, this gives them a 77-minute countdown, which is certainly convenient from a fiction writer's point of view to up the stakes and make the plot move, but really makes no sense from a point of view where you have a time machine and should be able to go forward and back as much as you need to. (This is also an element in Stephen King's Dark Tower novels, although it's of course weirder there and also involves multiple dimensions).

In addition to all the time travel fun, Face the Music also has an excellent message about ... well, it would maybe spoil just a little too much to say. So instead I'll ask some of the questions the movie prompted for me.

Does it really make sense that two dudes or a single band could usher in a bodacious new age? What would do so? What if your life doesn't quite go how you planned? Can you be a failure when you're surrounded by loved ones and trying to be excellent? When does nostalgia become a block to current or future success, and when it is just nice to hang out with old friends? What if the only thing stopping us from making a utopian future is our bogus reluctance to be excellent to each other? Why can't we just party on, dudes? Are Bill and Ted the heroes we need right now?

Maybe this sounds naīve or cheesy, but the reason I've loved Bill and Ted so much for over three decades is that I think being excellent to each other and enjoying life really are what life should be about. I've never really understood what stops people from at least trying to be excellent to each other, or why you wouldn't want to party on at least once in a while. Life is too short and filled with bogus suffering to do anything else.


I was beaming with delight after watching the movie, but I was really sad to learn about the death of Chadwick Boseman right as I finished the credits, reminding us that while life can be most excellent, it can also be pretty bogus sometimes. Let's party on in his most excellent memory. Wakanda forever!

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