Dear Younger Me,
The Bill & Ted movies are not as bad as you thought they were. The second one is silly and doesn’t know what it wants to be about; I promise you will LOVE the third. Yes, you do cry a little.
A Little Background
Starting the Thursday of the Bill & Ted Face the Music premiere, I watched all three Bill & Ted movies in less than 24 hours. The following are some of my thoughts before, during, and after the strange experience.
First, I want to establish I was born in 1987, so that’s one reason the originals were kind of off my radar. By the time I was old enough to know they existed, I grouped the Bill & Ted movies in with other early 90’s movies about slacker best friends, like Dumb & Dumber and Wayne’s World. I love comedy, but there’s one particular type of comedy I’m not really a fan of: the slapstick/screwball kind of comedy. Apparently I wasn’t alone in this opinion.
Second, you should know that I’m a professor of media. It’s nearly impossible to watch movies nowadays without also thinking critically about them. In this case, that included examining my own bias and being open to the experience.
Another big reason I’ve avoided that genre of comedy is also that the narrative usually focuses on a trope-y kind of male character I’m really not into: the man-child. Or in the case of the original Bill & Ted, the dude-bro (who later usually morphs into the man-child). But I was pleasantly surprised by my experience with these three movies, and I loved Bill & Ted Face the Music. I definitely teared up at one point from how perfect things were coming together, and at the great themes being explored.
So I’m here to admit that I judged this franchise wrongly. Rather than go back in time, I’m hoping this review will help others from repeating my mistake. Sadly I’ve never seen a red (or blue) time-traveling phone booth in real life, so this will have to do.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
This movie is about two high school best buds who want to be the next big rock sensations. According to the voice-over by George Carlin at the beginning, they will write a Song That Unites the World and makes the future an idyllic society with clean air, water, and… clean dirt? Since Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) already look like typical high school burnouts, the audience is meant to have doubts. Carlin addresses skeptics directly at the end of this monologue saying, “Ah, but don’t worry. It’ll all make sense. I’m a professional.”
Then the movie starts in earnest with Bill and Ted making a home video in their garage about their band Wyld Stallyns. They are framed by a wildstyle graffiti mural behind them on the wall. The dudes discuss how they hope this “triumphant video” will attract Eddie Van Halen to be their guitarist — a much-needed addition since they apparently don’t even know how to play. Which explains why their random guitar riffs just cause the amps to overload and fill the garage with smoke. To me, this visual sums up a major theme of all three films: are Bill and Ted just smoke, or can they be the real deal? Spoiler alert: somehow they will pull it off by the end of each movie.
Bill and Ted as characters are everything I should hate in one of these kinds of films. They’re testosterone-driven, over-privileged slackers. In history class, they can’t answer basic questions during a review and try to BS their teacher. He threatens that if they don’t get an A+ on their oral history report of what historical figures would think of modern-day San Dimas, California, then they will flunk. Later the stakes are raised even further when Ted’s dad threatens to send him to military school in Alaska if he messes this up. This breaking up of the duo by “flunking most heinously” is apparently the event professional time-traveler Rufus (Carlin) is trying to prevent from happening.
Look, you don’t need me to give you a play by play of the whole film. What surprised me is that, try as I might, I liked these guys. Yes, they’re dumb screw-ups, but they aren’t bullies. (Ted’s dad being hard on him is a good moment for empathy.) Bill and Ted’s genuine friendship is endearing; Bill is devoted to helping Ted pass, and they’re in it together. The film has some fun one-liners and moments, and though they’re portrayed as pretty unintelligent guys, sometimes Bill uses big words. Is it accidental that he uses them correctly most of the time? I’m still not sure. Some of my favorite quotes are “Strange things are afoot at the Circle K” and “Those are historical babes.”
For a film that came out in 1989, the diversity could have been worse. Their history teacher and the head of the future council are both Black. When nabbing historical figures, they grab Joan of Arc and Genghis Khan in addition to the six white dudes. Sadly, both of these marginalized characters fall into bad stereotypes later in the film, which suggests they were trying to check off boxes, not provide authentic representation. For example, Joan rejects weightlifting equipment in favor of bouncy aerobics for women — which is bull, because both armor and broadswords are heavy. Joan was probably pretty buff. (Although historians can’t agree on whether she actually participated in battle or not. But they do agree that she gave advice and the French army did better when she was around.)
Genghis Khan, meanwhile, is played by Al Leong as a barely verbal and violent warrior type who takes a baseball bat to a mannequin then rides away with stolen sporting goods on a skateboard after somersaulting over the heads of security. At least they got an actual Asian actor to play him? Some of the other historical figures don’t speak English, but they aren’t turned into caricatures the way Khan is in the movie.
At least Napoleon wasn’t portrayed in a very dignified light, either. When bowling, he became a petulant child when he didn’t win, leading to Ted’s little brother ditching him. Also, the ending insinuates maybe Napoleon wasn’t actually that good at combat either since his answer to Ted questioning his strategy during the oral report is to scatter the strategy board like a sore Monopoly loser. But portraying one of six white historical characters this way versus the only Asian character still leaves room for improvement.
Overall, I did enjoy Bill and Ted’s romp through history; the nerd in me couldn’t help but love those parts. (Yes I did look up and try to figure out which King Henry they were referencing in the 15th century.) I think Bill and Ted’s enthusiasm for the adventures throughout history helped to make them endearing. My summation is that the whole film is a good example of how much better experiential learning is than traditional classroom lecturing. I joked about Bill and Ted getting the historical figures to do their report for them, but there were a lot of moments during their report showing they did learn things along the way. If nothing else, they learned how to say Socrates and more about George Washington than he chopped down a cherry tree (which he did not, actually). So teachers and professors out there, try to reach all your students on their level and make history come alive for them.
Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey
This movie is a lot closer to what I thought the Bill & Ted movies would be like. The first film was a pretty fun teenage time-traveling historical romp, and even the whole framing shtick with their song influencing the future was about influencing history, not actually about music. The second movie doesn’t know what it is. It opens with the idyllic future society built on Bill and Ted’s maxims from the first movie — “Be Excellent to Each Other” and “Party On, Dudes” — being interrupted by what I assume is Rufus’ evil nemesis? He sends evil Bill and Ted robots back in time to kill the Bill and Ted primes so future society will be based on his teachings instead. Rufus manages to catch a ride back in time too, we assume, to stop the robot. (Yet he doesn’t really show up again until the very, very end…)
We finally meet current day Bill and Ted as they try to get a spot in a Battle of the Bands, even though only the English medieval princesses (on keyboard and drums) know how to play. Yes, they’re still dating the two princesses who Ted proclaimed “historical babes” and Rufus brought back to go to prom with. So, it’s an underdog movie, right? Where they spend the movie learning how to play, and somehow pull off winning Battle of the Bands? I was skeptical when the venue manager said they’d go on last because they’re so bad. Usually, bad or less experienced bands go first.
Then Bill and Ted talk about how they are planning to propose to the princesses and comment on how chaste their girlfriends are. Maybe after they’re married, the girls will be more affectionate, they basically say. This dialogue comes across as them trying to get a joke in about Bill and Ted being naive, but it’s wrapped in misogynist rhetoric. So it’s not a good start to the movie for me. In this section of the review, I’ll only refer to them as the princesses (or “them”) because they really are just stock characters in this film. I couldn’t remember their names or tell them apart through most of this film or the first. So is this one going to be a romance? Where they win the princesses over through the course of the film? But no. The girls readily agree to their double proposal and plastic rings. They do have a classic romcom breakup due to mistaken identity, but that couldn’t even be called a B story.
Somehow I momentarily forgot about the evil Bill and Teds. But when they show up, it’s not enough apparently to just kill Bill and Ted. They also want to ruin their lives by getting the princesses to hate Bill and Ted? I guess the robots were too evil or jealous of Bill and Ted prime? After being kicked off a cliff by their doppelgängers, Bill and Ted seem more concerned with coming back to life to save the princesses than, I don’t know, being alive.
I’m gonna be honest, this movie was kind of a mess to me conceptually. Probably because their relationship with the princesses seems to be built on love at first sight in the 15th century. Or maybe the fact that Rufus saved them from marriages to “royal ugly dudes?” It’s cool they play instruments in the band, but they seem to be fully devoted to Bill and Ted, and we have no evidence why other than that Bill and Ted are totally devoted to them. And we have no evidence why Bill and Ted are totally devoted to them other than that they were “historical babes.” I’m a big fan of romcoms, so I’m not asking for romantic realism here, just some kind of plot that makes sense.
William Sadler as the character of Death is really the only reason to watch this one. The scenes where he keeps trying to beat Bill and Ted at party games is great, and him just going along with the adventure provides some nice comedic moments. I don’t quite understand the mildly Eastern European accent, but I loved the way they flipped the scary stereotype of Death. Death is also in the third movie, which is why my partner didn’t let us skip the second movie. So my suggestion is to watch the second movie at least for Death and maybe do something else while you watch, so you don’t get too bored at the head-scratching parts.
(By the way, I looked it up and apparently, according to a Vulture interview, Sadler was going for a Czech accent and filmed the video linked above for his audition. After doing a lot of stage acting and then serious roles early in his career, he was being typecast as a villain and fought really hard for this comedic role.)
Bill & Ted Face the Music
Since starting this article, I’ve actually seen this one twice. I loved it that much. I was happy that it held up to a second watching. I noticed more things because I was revising my review of the second movie while rewatching the third, so I could see more of the connections they tied in.
This movie opens with two younger voices giving the back story of their dads over a montage of scenes from the past movies, and exposition about how so far they have failed to produce the Song That Unites the World. The second movie ended pretty definitively with claims that their one song “Those Who Rock” did that, so this explains why a third movie exists. Which brings us to now: Bill and Ted are giving a speech at a wedding. Missy and Deacon’s wedding, to be exact.
But now is a good time to talk about one of my biggest beefs with Bill & Ted as a franchise and the one time all three of the films let me down for the sake of a terrible gross misogynist running joke. Missy was Bill and Ted’s babysitter, who they later asked to prom as high school freshman. As we learn through Bill and Ted’s wedding speech, in the first movie she was married to Bill’s dad. Then, in the second movie, she was married to Ted’s dad. Now, she’s marrying Ted’s little brother Deacon. Missy, their former babysitter, marrying both dads eventually and being their “mom” is a big nope for me. In the first film, Missy is actually trying to be a helpful “mother” and is actually a more developed character than in the second film, where she’s just reduced to a joke by jumping over to be with Ted’s dad. I had hoped the third film would try to fix past mistakes, but they fudge it up by continuing to portray her as sex crazed. The original character of Missy was only four years older than Bill and Ted, so they turn her from a creepy sugar baby to a creepy cougar. Both are equally bad for representation, and after watching it the second time, I still believe the joke about Ted’s dad becoming his own son would have landed without the misogyny.
That’s the worst of it though. One reason I loved the third movie was that, other than the Missy plot, it seemed to be righting a lot of wrongs of the past. To be clear, I think for when Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure came out, it was actually pretty tame and progressive in some ways. But while this new installment brings back Bill and Ted, it also introduces a whole host of rounded out characters who aren’t just white dudes. One could argue that although the title still has Bill & Ted in it, the movie is equally about Billie, Thea, Elizabeth, Joanna, the Great Leader, Kelly, and the historical musical figures (only one of which is white).
To me, the theme of this one is stated when Ted’s dad talks about how their daughters are losers who live at home and listen to music, just like Bill and Ted. He asks their wives, Elizabeth and Joanna, if they’re really ok with being the only ones with real jobs. All the adults seem fine with it and pack up after the wedding reception. What Ted’s dad really doesn’t like about the situation is that all of these characters are defying gendered stereotypes. Elizabeth and Joanna express worry about Bill and Ted’s stress over making the one uniting song while their therapist points out it’s weird the four of them are all in the same session. Bill and Ted have fulfilled my prediction that the dude-bros will grow up into man-children, but they come through as good dads and husbands by the end. Elizabeth and Joanna end up meeting their older counterparts later, who take them on a quest for a time when their families are happy. (Please can we get a spin-off comic called Liz & Jo’s Totally Rad Time Romp? Because I really want to see what happened in the side quest when they meet their older selves. Maybe Kelly Thompson can be the writer?)
Billie and Thea, meanwhile, are young twenty-somethings who live at home, love music, and never once in the movie mention any interest in romance. (Note: Though others refer to Bill and Ted’s kids as girls, Billie is played by a nonbinary actor, and neither character refers to themselves as girls in the films. So I do not gender them in this review. While it would have been great for the Bill & Ted creators to make canon that one or both of the kids are non-binary, this portrayal at least feels like a step in the right direction for representation.) Though Billie and Thea are styled as trendy young people in their wedding intro, they aren’t bratty. Instead, they endlessly support and encourage their dads, which subverts the typical parent-child relationships seen in teen media. I love Thea and Billie as characters. It’s not often you see women and/or nonbinary characters as slackers. They also manage not to fall into the “one of the boys” trope; Billie and Thea just happen to really like music and take after their dads.
If the first movie was about history and the second was about robots and religion, then the third is about the history of music. Bill and Ted have come a long way since the first movie and finally seem educated about music. Their daughters are also musical super fans who know everything about different famous musicians’ influences and obscure historical music trivia. To help their dads, they travel through time collecting the perfect band, so when the Song That Unites the World comes together the band is ready. This all-star lineup is comprised of Jimi Hendrix, Louis Armstrong, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ling Lun, and Grom, a drummer from before recorded history. They are thankfully all more three dimensional compared to Genghis Khan in the first movie. Plus, the character of Grom is played by real-life drummer Patty Anne Miller, who has backed artists like Beyoncé and CeeLo Green. Kid Cudi also made an appearance as a quantum-physics obsessed version of himself who has to dumb down his jargon-filled and passionate explanation of how to fix the time-space collapse to Bill and Ted.
And in the end, Bill and Ted realize that the Song That Unites the World is actually made by their children. Cue to me crying as they say to Billie and Thea, “We’re here to back you up.” How is this possible, you might ask, since Billie and Thea are obsessed with music but can’t play instruments, just like their dads? Through the power of fans. They basically weave together samples of each famous musician and conduct the Song That Unites the World, while their parents play along. All four of them, Joanna and Elizabeth having returned to realize they are happy in this timeline (take that society/Ted’s dad). Apparently the fans of Bill & Ted played a big part in getting this film made, and I think this ending does an excellent job of paying homage to them. So in this movie, Joanna and Elizabeth become more fully developed characters. They pass their legacy on by empowering their children, and the history of music is embodied mostly by BIPOC.
My final verdict: I loved it. It was worth the money to see it the week it premiered and bonus, I didn’t smell like burnt popcorn after.