Written By: Daniel Kinsley
Bill and Ted Face The Music (2020) feels about as unlikely a triumph as this writer could have imagined, particularly during this historically awful year. The original films, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) respectively have a special place in slacker-comedy history but are probably closer to cult films than mainstream classics, all things being equal. Both are deeply silly films that have a very unique voice, thanks to being penned by the same writers, and inhabited so indelibly by stars Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter. On paper, a third film certainly had promise; Dean Parisot, the man behind Galaxy Quest (1999) was brought on to direct (and who better to nail the tone of a Bill and Ted movie!) while original writers Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson spent the last decade getting the script right (on spec, no less) and Reeves and Winter kept saying all the right things about slipping back into their iconic roles. Still, legacy sequels, especially ones made decades after the original films were made, are damn near impossible to get right. And yet…they pulled it off. The script is sharply written, insightful about aging and legacy, and as steeped in kindness as it is in silliness. Reeves, arguably a bigger star now than he ever was before, slips back into the two man show with no signs of being too big, or too cool * while Winter makes a delightful return to being in front of the camera after transitioning to a career in documentary filmmaking years ago. While both Bill and Ted remain as dimly sweet as ever, dude, Parisot and the gang smartly recognize the limited reach of relying only on nostalgia. While there are nods to characters and past events that ought to put a big smile on fans’ faces, Face The Music ends up feeling less like a retread so much as both a tribute and a summation of what came before.
Picking up nearly 30 years since the events of Bogus Journey, the once legendary rock band Wyld Stallyns have gradually fallen into obscurity (as well as middle age) after failing to write the song that would unite the world, as prophesied in the original film by time-traveler Rufus (the late, great George Carlin). They remain married to the medieval princesses from the first film (now played by Erinn Hayes and Jayma Mays) and their children, Little Bill and Little Ted, turned out to be daughters, Billie (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and Thea (Samara Weaving). The once charming slackers are struggling with having never lived up to their full potential; their latest attempt at a new song during a wedding reception for Ted’s brother (featuring some old, familiar faces) goes disastrously and both men fail to understand their wives frustrations during a bout of couples therapy…attended simultaneously by both couples. While the film clearly has affection to spare for them, it is clear that the years have put a strain on nearly everyone else in their lives, as they seem to be the last to realize they may not be the heroes they were told they would become.
Billie and Thea take after their fathers in more than a few ways, as both are in their mid-twenties, living at home, and are unemployed. Oh, and they love music. The girls are unmistakably Bill and Ted’s daughters in their mannerisms, as well. While the way they talk may be more modern, they both inhabit the same lackadaisical, goofy, and ultimately gentle persona as their dads. Lundy-Paine and Weaving are both terrific performers, and while they are not really asked to tap into their range, the performances feel organic and true without slipping into caricature. One of the biggest problems long-gestating sequels face is the question of how (and whether, really) to pass the baton, and it is very easy to get it wrong (Think Mutt in Indiana Jones & The Crystal Skull ) so not only is casting imperative, but how they fit into the story is as well. Solomon and Matheson make really smart choices by setting the girls on their own path, but one that happens to run parallel to the boys’ latest adventure.
When Kelly (Kristen Schaal) shows up from the future to discuss the problem, they are told that the effects of their failing to write the fabled song now threatens the existence of all time and space. Like most of Bill and Ted, it is deeply ridiculous, yet it remains believably urgent.. The plight of so many big movies these days (in this writer’s humble opinion) is a lack of clear understanding of stakes. So many films rely on the heroes getting the mysterious McGuffin ** in order to prevent the cataclysmic destruction of reality as we know it! It is certainly an appealing (or at least convenient) way to deliver the classic hero’s journey, but often, it ends up just feeling like a lot of exposition and noise. What Face The Music gets so, so right is the machinations of the plot never overshadow its characters. Bill and Ted (and to a large extent, Billie and Thea) are the beating heart of the film, and their madcap journey to save reality is less an excuse for big set pieces so much as a romp in which the boys are forced to come to terms with the men they have become, and in a lot of ways, the ones they did not. The world building in these films has always been broad and weird, but it has also always felt very self-assured; there is a goofy but consistent logic in play, and it all lands because of the way Reeves and Winter are able to play it.
Returning to a role like Bill and Ted, particularly after so many years away feels like a pretty daunting task, and yet both Reeves and Winter are more than up to the task. *** Playing these characters in middle-age is certainly a lot different than as a twenty-something, and both men are able to navigate the script’s exploration of aging and having to own up to the idea that you did not turn out the way you hoped you might. The fact that they are able to do it by being so over-the-top ridiculous is a feat made all the more impressive that it does not lose any of its insight as a result. One of the best choices the writers made is that Bill and Ted remain (after all these long years) best friends who love one another, and while they are often (literally) confronting themselves and their choices, there is no artificial conflict between them while they try to figure out where they must have gone wrong.
Once the film gets going, it makes the most of its brisk runtime, with hilarious costumes, historical cameos, and appearances from friends old (Death!) and new (a robot played by Barry breakout Anthony Carrigan is one of the film’s best running gags) and the way it all comes together feels both entirely true to thirty years of Bill and Ted while firmly keeping one foot planted in the present. These films have resonated with audiences for several reasons, but one of which has to be the sheer optimistic spirit at the heart of them, anchored by a belief that music and kindness can bring us all together. After such a long, painful, difficult year, it would be foolhardy to try and put into words what it meant to see these particular characters again, but this is the first entry in the series that made this writer cry. The fact that this film not only exists, but is such a triumph (on its own and as a conclusion to the series) feels like something of a miracle.
As former President Abe Lincoln once said, “These two great gentlemen are dedicated to a proposition which was true in my time, just as it’s true today. Be excellent to each other.“
* Keanu has arguably never been a bigger star, and you just have to love the total lack of vanity in returning; while Winter transitioned away from acting into a successful career in documentary filmmaking, you would never know, as he doesn’t miss a beat.
** Inside baseball, in case you don’t know: a term coined by Hitchcock, a McGuffin is the object or device in a movie that sets the adventure into motion. Think the briefcase in Pulp Fiction (1994).
*** Though it should be said (and while this is somewhat pedantic) Reeves seems to have a more difficult time in some scenes finding his voice than his co-star—though in fairness, he is at times asked to do a bit more, as well.