I’ll admit something here I’ve mentioned elsewhere: I didn’t go to see Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure because I knew what it was and wanted to see it. I went because the trailer for the 1989 Batman movie was playing before it. So basically, I bought a ticket for a trailer and got a movie as a bonus.
And what a movie it was. History major that I was (and am), I loved Excellent Adventure and saw it multiple times in the theater. And no, not just because the Batman trailer was attached. I enjoyed the film for what it was: an overly enthusiastic, charming adventure movie about a couple of Gen X high schoolers to which I could relate, even if I lived in the suburbs of Houston and they San Dimas, California.
The snippets of dialogue became engrained in my head and the culture. I mean, how many of us in the past thirty-one years have not thought about something being strangely afoot when we pass a Circle K? How many of us can recite Bill and Ted’s basic mantra: Be Excellent To Each Other. And Party On, Dudes!
Bogus Journey was different, but still good. I like the first one more largely because I could see myself in that story, but Bogus Journey had some marvelous sequences, most of which feature William Sadler as Death.
But that was it. For the past twenty-nine years, Bill and Ted 3 lived its own bogus journey in development hell. I didn’t think it would ever get made. Part of me didn’t think we needed it. Seriously, did we want to see Bill and Ted…old? Was there even a story there?
Face the Music: The Set Up
Turns out, there was.
The writing duo of Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon—the same folks who wrote the first two movies—proved there was a story worth telling. And a story worth viewing by all of us, especially the members of Generation X.
When we finally meet Bill and Ted in the third movie, they are fiftyish. Long gone are the heady days immediately following Bogus Journey when they saved the world and toured as Wyld Stallyns, complete with Death as the, um, killer bass player. Now, the lovable duo are ensconced in the suburbs, living next door to each other, married to the literal princesses from Bogus Journey, each with a twenty-five-year-old daughter. Bill’s daughter (played by Samara Weaving, kin to Hugo Weaving from The Matrix fame) is Thea and Ted’s daughter (played to a T by Brigette Lundy-Paine) is Billie. You see what they did there? Bill’s daughter is…Ted and Ted’s daughter is…Bill. [Cue air guitar]
The one thing they’ve not done is write The Song that will unite the world. [As an aside, I kinda thought that was how Bogus Journey ended, but what they hey.] In fact, they’ve sputtered into middle age, complete with marital problems. The two wives just want their respective husbands to recognize how co-dependent Bill and Ted are for each other and to channel some of that energy into their respective marriages. The daughters are just like their dads, complete with an intricate knowledge of music.
Which is when the future intervenes. The Great Leader sends Kelly, daughter of George Carlin’s Rufus, back in time to give Bill and Ted their mission: write The Song in 77 minutes or all of space and time will be destroyed. Taking a cue from their earlier adventures, the pair decide to travel into their own futures to meet their older selves and get the song that way.
In the meantime, the future wives have traveled back in time to get their younger selves to leave Bill and Ted.
And also in the meantime, Billie and Thea meet Kelly and the daughters take her time machine back in time to form a most excellent band for their dads. [Cue air guitar]
Face the Music Actually Says a Lot
While I’ll admit it took a few minutes for me to get into seeing Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter as old versions of their iconic characters, once the time traveling stuff started, it was all fun from there. Meeting their future selves didn’t necessarily pan out like they’d thought it would. Future Bill and Ted are bitter at losing their wives and their daughters and not having written the song. They blame Present Bill and Ted and actively try and thwart them. Thus, Bill and Ted become the villains…to Bill and Ted.
Hey, it worked for me. Why? Simple: what if your younger self could see how your life turned out?
Think about it. When you’re in high school, your head is full of dreams for your future. Whatever you want to be when you grow up, your dreams put you in the best possible version. You’re a doctor? Then you cure cancer. You’re a teacher? Then you educate the next president. You’re a baseball player? You hit the game winning home run to win the World Series. And if you’re a musician? Then you write the song that can unite the world.
I think few of us would even want to travel back in time and tell our younger selves how we turned out. You had the dream of being a musician? Well, now you have an office job in a cube (or at home, in 2020’s reality) and your guitar sits dusty in the corner of the room. You wanted to be a baseball player? Well, the injury you sustained in college killed that dream and you had to adjust.
Because adjusting is what we all do. We figure things out as we go along, rarely sticking to the dream path we envisioned. Some do, yes, and more power to them. But for many of us, how we envisioned the future may not necessarily be how we’re actually living in it.
Gen X Grows Old
Another obvious aspect of the film is the age of Bill and Ted. Reeves and Winter look great, but they still look middle aged, especially after having watched Excellent Adventure and Bogus Journey to prep for Face the Music. You can’t hide age.
Name your reunion movie in which beloved TV characters from your favorite show come together. Gunsmoke. The Andy Griffith Show. The Brady Bunch. Perry Mason. The Rockford Files. The Wild Wild West. Gilligan’s Island. Whatever. The original TV shows are burned into our consciousness, especially us Gen Xers who, as latch key kids, grew up watching reruns. Ron Howard is forever Opie (or Richie Cunningham) in our minds, the small youth walking and whistling with Andy. Bob Denver will always be twenty-nine or so, the lovable goof from the island.
But seeing these same actors play the same characters years or decades older is odd. (The Brady kids kind of get a pass because they had multiple spinoffs and we got to see them age up almost in real time. And I’m not talking about reunion specials when the actors gather to discuss their shows.) There’s something you have to get used to. Exactly the same with Bill and Ted (and William Sadler as Death).
They got old.
But so did we.
Many of us may not have access to our high school yearbooks anymore (I still have mine) but we have access to the movies of our high school (or early college) years. Up until 2020, Reeves and Winter, were forever frozen in 1989 or 1991. Reeves not so much because we saw him age up in his movies, but as Bill and Ted, they are like fossils, preserved in amber.
But so is everything about growing up Gen X. Think about this: to the best of my knowledge, Bill and Ted are the only 80s icons we revisit in middle age. The Breakfast Club are still in high school. So are the kids from Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, Ridgemont High, St. Elmo’s Fire, the Goonies, and, of course, Ferris Bueller. They are forever young, forever looking to their futures and their dreams.
With Bill and Ted, however, we get to see them how we are now. Older, shaken from our younger dreams, and heading into the realm of being a senior citizen.
The Real Message of Face the Music: It’s Never Too Late
All of this talk about dashed dreams may seem like a downer—especially in 2020—but there’s an underlying ray of light in this movie: It’s Never Too Late.
One of the small things I really appreciated is the moment with Ted and his father. Played again by Hal Landon Jr., Captain Logan never got over his desire to set his son’s path in life straighter. In the first two films, military school was the answer. And in this one, he explodes to his son and Bill about their wasted lives. Because Gen X was basically labeled as the slacker generation, and we have dozens of films to reinforce the point.
But Captain Logan gets himself drug into the larger plot and he finally realizes that the thing Bill and Ted have talked about for thirty years was real. It all was. The father comes to realize his son really did make a difference to the world, and he apologizes for his misunderstanding. Here’s the father, nearing retirement age, figuring out it’s never too late to apologize.
Late in the film, Present Bill and Ted visit their elderly selves, the villains of most of the film. There, Middle-Aged Bill and Ted get to have a heart-to-heart with Elderly Bill and Ted and clear the air. Both versions of Bill and Ted realize it’s never too late to come to terms and appreciate all the choices they’ve made—and we’ve made—with our lives. We are the accumulation of every single decision we’ve made, the good ones, the bad ones, the cherished ones, and the anguished ones. I live with few regrets, but there are always the little things I wish I could go back and tweak. But all of that vanished the day my son was born. It was that day I realized each and every decision I made led up to that day, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.
Another small thing is with Bill and Ted’s marriages. For their entire adult lives, they’ve been blinded by their mutual affection for each other. Boy, to have a friend like that, huh? But during the movie and after meeting their future selves, they realize it’s never too late to reinvest in their marriages with their wives.
Then there’s the big little thing, the one the whole movie hinges on: Bill and Ted realize it’s never too late to pass the torch onto the next generation. Slight spoilers here, but ones you could pretty much see coming.
Their daughters go on their own most excellent adventure, drafting the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Louis Armstrong, and Mozart form the band to play The Song. But the fathers don’t have the song. They don’t even know it.
But they realize, even as the seconds are counting down to annihilation, that it’s never too late to help your children do great things, especially if that thing is to save space and time. The parents facilitate all that’s necessary to enable their daughters to do what they could not: unite the world through a song.
Yeah, this piece edged into heady territory, especially for a movie that’s often laugh out loud funny. But it has a lot of heart and emotion in this film. And I think it can speak to multiple generations. For my son, a college freshman, it’s a fun movie with lots of in jokes and over-the-top shots. I’m thinking Jesus walking on water next to George Washington as he crosses the Delaware River. Or how the two actresses playing the daughters nail their respective impressions of their fathers yet still make the characters unique.
But for us middle-aged Gen Xers, there’s an entirely different movie playing in front of our eyes. It’s a movie about our lives that we never expected, never saw coming, but is so important to many of us. We are getting older. Heck, we *are* old. We’ve become our parents and, with that perspective, we can reevaluate how our parents raised us. For me, I’ve long known my parents were most excellent role models and if I could follow their examples, I’d do well. But only after I became a parent did even more things come into view about my own childhood. Most of us have these realizations some time or other, and now Bill and Ted do, too.
It’s remarkable that a film about two genuinely lovable dudes who possess a genuine affection for each other and the world could deliver such a profound message to the world in 2020. I’m sure the screenwriters could never have dreamed the finished film would land the way it did: in few theaters and on demand (how we watched it) in the middle of a pandemic and an election year with racial strife and fellow Americans yelling at each other. If ever we needed Wyld Stallyns to sing their song, it’s 2020.
But we’ll have to satisfy ourselves with a genuinely funny and heartfelt movie, and also the realization that it’s never too late to look at our fellow humans on this planet and preach and act in the way Bill and Ted told us to do over thirty years ago: Be Excellent to Each Other.