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Bill and Ted Face the Music

Everyone has a breaking point. Every rule has an exception.

When the lockdown started, I looked at the streaming prices for the new releases, and I balked hard. Twenty bucks to see Trolls: World Tour? The same price for Bloodshot, and Emma.? Freaking $30 to see Mulan (2020) in addition to the Disney+ subscription price?!

(Side note: News just broke that Mulan (2020) will indeed be available to all Disney+ subscribers — without the upcharge — in three months. So the extra $30 is basically for seeing it in September rather than December. I’m still not paying that, for the record.)

When I saw these upcharges, I swore I wouldn’t pay over twice the cost of a regular multiplex ticket just to see a new release. Even with the usual price gouging at the multiplex, at least I know some of the money is going to its local employees and not all to Google or Amazon. No way was I ever going to…

Sorry, what’s that? Google Play is charging $20 to rent Bill and Ted Face the Music? The capstone to a franchise that I’ve known and loved since I first knew what movies were?

*heavy sigh* Goddammit. Okay, what have we got?

We open with a voice-over prologue from Billie Logan and Thea Preston (respectively played by Brigette Lundy-Paine and Samara Weaving), helpfully getting us up to speed on how their respective fathers have been doing for the past thirty years. Basically put, they’re not doing well.

After their blockbuster initial success back in 1991, their chart standings toppled and the band broke up. Only Bill and Ted themselves (once again played by Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves) remain, their every attempt at music superstardom met with a critical and commercial lashing. You’d think that would be enough for a campy cult appeal — I have to imagine there’s a group of fans who LOVE this “so bad it’s good” kinda stuff, but of course that’s not the kind of success they’re going for.

From there, we meet back up with Bill and Ted, still in San Dimas. Now they’re doing wedding gigs, and this particular wedding is for…

…WTFWASDF;OIAWETRTOHTAWS;DOIGAROGOIHERBOT;IABO SNO

…I’m sorry, my brain blew a fuse when I saw who the bride and groom were. Better to move on for now, I think.

Anyway, suffice to say that the Wyld Stallyns’ new music has been going further and further into territory that might charitably be called “experimental”, though perhaps “a parody of pretentious prog rock” might be a better description. It’s funny as hell, sending the message early and clearly that Winter and Reeves came to play like they’re making up for thirty years of lost time.

Moving on, we quickly learn that their wives (As a reminder, those would be the Princesses Joanna and Elizabeth, now respectively played by Jayma Mays and Erinn Hayes.) — you know, the women who were uprooted from the freaking Middle Ages and turned out to be the most musically competent members of the band — are the only ones in their respective families with actual jobs. We never learn exactly what those jobs are, but it’s clear that they’re supporting Bill and Ted and their daughters entirely on their own backs, and they’re not happy about it. The only ones who are really 100 percent in Bill and Ted’s corner are their daughters, two unemployed twenty-somethings who listen to music all day.

Furthermore, despite all the supernatural sci-fi shenanigans these two have been a publicly visible part of for the past two movies (They toured with robot copies of themselves and the actual Grim Reaper himself, for fuck’s sake!), nobody else really believes that Bill and Ted ever actually traveled through time, went to Heaven or Hell, and so on. And let’s not forget that the two are getting on in years and their best is probably behind them.

In summary, Bill and Ted are under increasing pressure to finally grow up, get real jobs, and give up on ever crafting the music that was prophesied to unite the world. Oh, and did I mention that the space-time continuum is folding on itself in weird and unpredictable ways? Because that’s another thing going wrong.

So where’s Rufus in all of this? Well, it’s never explicitly stated, but the implication is that he’s passed on. In his place, Bill and Ted are assisted by Kristen Schaal, here playing Rufus’ daughter. I might add that the character is named Kelly, after Carlin’s own real-life daughter (who has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo, by the way). Isn’t that sweet?

From here, the movie effectively splits into two.

In one movie, the Wyld Stallyns are told they only have roughly two more hours to write and perform the song that they’ve already been trying to write for their entire lives. Their solution: Hijack the old phone booth to meet different versions of themselves throughout their future, hoping to catch up with them after they’ve actually written the song. It doesn’t go well — in fact, it’s repeatedly shown that Bill and Ted only make their own lives worse with every jump.

As you might have guessed, this causes the space-time continuum to unravel even faster than it already has. In response, the future’s Great Leader (Holland Taylor) — who just happens to be Kelly’s mom — sends back a freaking Terminator (also named “Dennis”, played by Anthony Carrigan) to chase down Bill and Ted, hoping that their martyrdom may be enough to unite the world and stop the damage.

In response, Kelly recruits Billie and Thea, loaning them a newer model of time machine. This leads to our second movie, in which Billie and Thea try to recruit great musicians from throughout history to help write the song that’s going to save all of reality. So it’s basically a backdoor soft reboot of the franchise. Not a bad way to go about it, really.

Unfortunately, the new time machine has a seed-shaped design, with all the smooth, sterile, featureless, colorless edges of an Apple Store. It doesn’t have the approachable iconic charm of the phone booth (to say nothing of the DeLorean, the TARDIS, etc.), and the time travel effect looks ripped off from that wretched teleportation effect of Star Trek (2009). Even with the original phone booth (now an older model, by this movie’s standards), the time travel effect is much cleaner and faster than it was in the first movie. I don’t like it.

But by far the bigger problem here is that the second act feels like two stories slammed together, and the two have so little in common that it leads to issues with tracking, pacing, and tonal whiplash. More to the point, it feels like either one of them should’ve been enough to carry the entire film on its own.

And yet on further reflection, I don’t really know if that’s true.

In the case of Billy and Thea, they’re travelling through history and recruiting a bunch of famous people to help with a big performance at the end. On the one hand, that’s exactly what happened with the first movie, so we know for a fact that it’s enough to support a 90-minute movie. But on the other hand, that’s exactly what happened with the first movie, so why bother doing the exact same thing all over again?

With regards to Bill and Ted, the movie had been sold to me through various interviews and promos as a story about two men who were sold a false bill of goods when they were teenagers. They were told that the future was going to be amazing, they were going to do all these wonderful things, and none of it came true. How do you keep pursuing your life’s dream for thirty solid years, even after it’s given you nothing? Hell, what do you do if the dream somehow comes true and you’re too old to do anything else with the rest of your life?

It’s a powerful subject, especially for the millennials — the so-called “unluckiest generation” — who grew up with this franchise. (*ahem*).

And yet, while this profoundly personal and introspective topic was never really given its due, it’s not exactly in the wheelhouse of Bill and Ted, either. William S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan are clueless, carefree, self-unaware doofuses — whether they’re teenagers or grown men, that’s who and what they are and it’s why we love them. While they’ve had their dark and introspective moments in the past, they’re simply not built or equipped for the kind of existential soul-searching that my generation has had to deal with — certainly not for an entire movie.

So what we get instead are Bill and Ted watching themselves get older, uglier, angrier, lonelier, more pathetic, and more bitter with every time jump that passes. Every few years when they’re that much farther estranged from their wives and daughters, from the song that was supposed to lead them to greatness.

With that in mind, it really is a mercy that this wasn’t the entire second act, and it’s frankly a miracle that this storyline is as funny as it is. Though of course, I’m sure it helps that Winter and Reeves are obviously having a blast, playing all these wildly different iterations of the characters. It absolutely helps that we’ve got Dean Parisot on board — if you want a director for your retro-tinged, self-aware, intelligent and heartfelt sci-fi comedy about unintelligent people, look no further than the man who made Galaxy Quest.

But then we come to the third act — most especially the climax — when the two separate stories recombine and more prominent themes start to crystallize. By far the most obvious is in the unifying power of music, its power to bridge all times and cultures. Hardly a new theme, but the time travel gimmick makes it fresh, and the execution is a worthy payoff to all the setup that was done back in 1989.

Moreover, if the first movie was about the people who change the world, this movie is about people who go on to inspire even greater minds to keep pushing further. I’m sorry to say that spoilers prevent me from going into much detail, but the movie raises the distinct possibility that even if we fail, there may be others to pick up where we left off and finish the job. And that’s exactly the kind of warm, optimistic outlook that I’d expect from this franchise.

Let’s move on to the cast. Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves are delightful — they dove right into playing versions of their classic characters who never really grew up. We’ve also got William Sadler, Hal Landon Jr., and Amy Stoch all making fantastic return appearances. Even the late George Carlin pops in for a cameo, by way of archival footage and a bit of admirable assistance from soundalike Piotr Michael.

And what of our new arrivals? Well, Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine are… to put it bluntly, they’re playing a gender-swapped modern reboot of Bill and Ted, and that’s way more adorable than it sounds on paper. Imagine if the original characters were reinvented as media junkies of the online world, the kind who thrive on musical trivia and ephemera, with deep knowledge and appreciation of everything from the classics to the obscure. We never actually see Billie and Thea’s YouTube channel, but I’m sure they have one. And of course it helps that the Weaving/Lundy-Paine chemistry is an uncanny match to what Winter and Reeves had back in the day. Outstanding work.

Jayma Mays and Erinn Hayes fit nicely as the third pairing of actors to play their characters, though it helps that they don’t have to really do much except act off of Winter and Reeves. Speaking of which, major kudos to Jillian Bell, a battle-tested comedic actor here demonstrating her chops as a marriage therapist for Logan/Preston.

Beck Bennett was an inspired choice to play Ted’s little brother Deacon. Kristen Schaal is no George Carlin, and Kelly is certainly no Rufus, but Kelly tries her hardest to do the job in her own way as best she can, and so does Schaal. No way in hell am I going into any more detail about Dennis than I have to, but there’s far more to the character than appears at first blush and Anthony Carrigan plays it all superbly.

Then we have the musical icons that Thea and Billie meet on their adventures through time and space. I don’t dare spoil which ones they meet, though I regret to say that they’re fewer in number and (I would argue) smaller in historical stature than the roster of the first movie. It certainly doesn’t help that certain rights issues meant that some of their most iconic songs couldn’t be played. We’ve still got a nice variety of household names, though, all talented and very capably played. A couple of musicians even play themselves: One has a show-stopping cameo and the other has a show-stealing role.

(Side note: Speaking of cameos, keep an eye out for franchise masterminds Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson, here making fantastic use of their brief screentime as a couple of demons.)

Even more interesting, Thea and Billie go back to recruit a quasi-historical mythical figure — on the level of Robin Hood or King Arthur — and the filmmakers gender-swapped the character. And for extra measure, they threw in a fictional musician from pre-history. All bold moves, far from anything the franchise has dared up to this point.

Though Billie and Thea never think to go back and recruit Beethoven. Even if they would’ve had to recast the role (Clifford David died of undisclosed causes in 2017), that seems like a huge missed opportunity. I have to believe Ludwig Van would’ve been all to happy to help his old friends and their daughters in their time of desperate need, but I guess we’ll never know.

Speaking of which, Bill and Ted of the first movie either recruited all their historical figures through outright kidnapping or through time-hopping right in front of them. Billie and Thea take a different approach, recruiting musicians to persuade each other. This results in some fantastic musical exchanges, including a trans-historical musical duel at the 40-minute mark to bring the house down.

(Side note: If you want slightly more spoiler-y details about the relevant musicians — along with the whys and wherefores of their involvement — I strongly recommend this most excellent article on the subject.)

In summary, Bill and Ted Face the Music is something increasingly rare in the film industry: A solid franchise capstone. It’s a movie that firmly and definitively closes the book on Bill and Ted, but it does so in a way that respects the characters and the fans. It’s funny, it’s heartfelt, and it’s loaded with callbacks and payoffs that reward franchise fans, all while maintaining the optimism and the defiant innocence we’ve come to know and love from these characters.

How would it play to someone who’s never seen the first two movies? I don’t have the first fucking clue. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I grew up with the first movie, I’m very likely the very last person who could possibly answer that question. All I can say is that this got the franchise back on board after the misstep of Bogus Journey, folding the lesser sequel into continuity without repeating the same mistakes. Beautifully done.

With all of that said, I must note that all of my praise is contingent on this being the last Bill and Ted movie. There’s no way to Toy Story 4 this, not without bringing everything down around its ears. Though I certainly wouldn’t object if Universal Studios found a way to bring back the Halloween stage show. And if any future movies passed the torch to Billie and Thea… well, let’s see what happens.

Be excellent to each other.

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