‘Bill & Ted’ Are Back to Give Us Hope for the Future
In “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” the third film in the “Bill & Ted” saga, the Wyld Stallyns have returned to save the world once more. They couldn’t have come at a better time.
In 1989, two Californian teenage doofuses were handed a most prodigious destiny: their music would save our bitterly divided world, uniting it once and for all in righteous, heavy-metal harmony. They possessed no actual musical skill and couldn’t guess the difference between Mongol emperor Bob Genghis Khan and Greek philosopher So-crates Johnson. But what Bill S. Preston, Esq. (Alex Winter) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves) lacked in smarts, they made up for in pure, unconquerable optimism. (And “69” jokes.) One Excellent Adventure and a hellish Bogus Journey later, Bill and Ted stood on the precipice of greatness. Their band, the Wyld Stallyns, had finally become a worldwide sensation. Their destiny, it seemed, would be fulfilled. They would be heroes.
But when we find the pair again 29 years later in Bill & Ted Face the Music—the third and final Bill & Ted film, out on VOD and in select drive-in theaters this weekend—all that momentum has fizzled. Rather than heroes reveling in world peace, the Wyld Stallyns are now a pair of deflated middle-aged dads playing mostly empty rooms in daylight-streaked hotel bars. No song of theirs ever united the world. With heavy hearts and their marriages on the rocks, the best friends are instead on the verge of pawning their guitars and giving up their rock-god dreams for good—a most non-triumphant fate for the would-be world saviors and most diehard metal fans in San Dimas.
Bill & Ted Face the Music is, in some ways, a movie about failure—about carrying the weight of high expectations, falling short, and learning to find purpose elsewhere. It was the question that hooked Alex Winter and, crucially, a now mid-career renaissance Keanu Reeves into returning to the roles they originated in their twenties, says Chris Matheson, who co-created the characters and wrote all three films with Ed Solomon: “If your adolescent fantasy of having this rock band that’s going to save the world hasn’t worked out, what is your life about then?”
UCLA classmates Matheson and Solomon were twentysomethings themselves when Bill and Ted popped into existence as an idea for an improv sketch. They played the characters onstage as “a couple of guys who knew nothing about history, talking about history,” while Ted’s dad “kept coming up to ask them to turn their music down.” They began writing letters to each other as Bill and Ted, and spun their idea into the story of two time-traveling “innocents who would wander wide-eyed into any situation and treat everyone exactly the same—completely open, completely friendly,” as Solomon recalled in 1991. “They’d treat the guy sitting next to them in math class the same as Abraham Lincoln, with no sense of the context in which they lived.”
Matheson’s dad, the celebrated sci-fi writer Richard Matheson (known for I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man, What Dreams May Come, and dozens more novels, TV, and film scripts; his line to a producer eventually helped the first film get made) encouraged the pair to turn the idea into a full-length movie, rather than a single skit in a sketch film. They initially dubbed it Bill & Ted’s Time Van—so called because in the first handwritten draft, Rufus, the all-knowing emissary from the future played by George Carlin in the films, was “a 27-year-old high school sophomore whose van went through time,” Solomon remembers, “but we didn’t explain why or what the purpose was.”
The script didn’t quite work—time travel “seemed to break the physics of the movie”—until another idea came to Matheson and Solomon as a joke. “What if the jeopardy wasn’t just that Ted’ll be sent to military school and the guys will be separated? What if that means their band will never happen? And if their band never happens, then like, the whole fate of the world is at stake? That made us laugh,” Solomon says. Sometime past midnight at a coffee shop in Westwood in 1983, the pair jotted out a scene set in a utopian future, where a benevolent “Future Council” invites the boys to speak. “I remember we said to each other, ‘What would they say when they get there?’” Solomon remembers. “And one of us just said, ‘Be excellent to each other,’ and the other one said, ‘Party on, dudes.’ And we just went with it.”
“We didn’t look at each other and go, ‘Man, this is deep, dude. This is gonna really resonate,’” Matheson adds. “We just thought it was funny.” Still, the spur-of-the moment phrasing neatly articulated the sweet, boneheaded decency, positivity, and Zen-like intuition that made Bill and Ted so enduring—and their return amid the world-engulfing dysfunction of 2020 so appealing.
The Bill and Ted we meet in Face the Music are still the best of friends, the most stellar of dudes, and now genuinely talented musicians. But the future is not what was ordained. Bill and Ted are stuck scuttling from venue to venue, earning half-hearted applause at their mutual ex-stepmom Missy’s fourth wedding (she’s since moved on to Ted’s little brother Deacon) and at sleepy bars in the middle of the afternoon. No one understands the chaotic genius of the Wyld Stallyns’ prog-rock anthem “That Which Binds Us Through Time—The Chemical, Physical, and Biological Nature of Love and the Exploration of the Meaning of Meaning, Pt. 1.” It’s all a steep downgrade from the short-lived glory days when they played the Grand Canyon and put the world’s nuclear arsenal to good use. (Fueling their amps.)
Living in the shadow of that bright but brief period and living up to their teenage daughters Thea and Billie’s wide-eyed admiration of their fathers—yes, Bill and Ted named their children after each other—has taken a toll. “We all go through this. That person we invented when we were 18, who we were going to be? We’re really lucky if we even get close to it. Things change along the way, and you have a life. And that is sort of at the heart of every story of a middle-aged person, I think,” says Face the Music director Dean Parisot. “But what’s great about Bill and Ted is they never give up. That’s the core.”
Bill and Ted each cope with disappointment in uniquely telling ways. “Ted in particular really hurts. Bill hurts too, he’s just kind of keeping it more held in,” Solomon says. What seems to make the difference for Reeves’ character? “They’re just made of different stuff,” he surmises. “I would say if you really even look at the first movie, I mean, Bill’s got it bad. Bill’s dad is just so horrible. But Ted seems to feel it more. His dad’s really brutal to him.”
Matheson jumps in from across the screen of our Zoom call; he is against a plain wall painted charcoal gray, Solomon with two electric guitars and a bass at his side. “It’s really interesting because when we were conceiving of these characters, all the way back to before we even wrote a script, when Chris and I were just screwing around doing them, there was a lot of torment in Ted’s personal life. His buoyant attitude may either have come out of that, or despite it. But you can see the chickens coming home to roost a bit in this movie. It’s about them getting their Bill and Ted-ness back, for lack of a better word.”
“We knew we didn’t want to do the other [option] where it’s like, well, it’s all worked out and they’re big, giant stars but they had a falling out because their egos got too big. That just wouldn’t happen in our minds,” Solomon says. “They wouldn’t have a falling-out. It wouldn’t make any sense.”
The pair looked instead to antecedents like A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life as the blueprints for Face the Music’s spiritual journey. With the fabric of reality itself coming undone, Rufus’ daughter Kelly (played by Kristen Schaal) tasks Bill and Ted with finally producing the greatest song ever written and uniting the world, or else kiss existence goodbye. So the pair do what they’ve always done in their direst times of need: they stuff themselves back into the phone booth (its antenna no longer sticky with gum) and cheat a little. They time-travel from one version of their future selves to another, five years from now all the way to the nursing-home room they’ll inevitably share as geriatrics, hoping to find and plagiarize the song they figure they must have written by then.
Winter and Reeves play subtle differences in Bill and Ted’s reactions to their future selves. “I find it fascinating to watch Keanu’s interpretation of how the Teds just don’t get along with each other,” Matheson says with a broad smile. “He just on some deep, foundational level doesn’t seem to trust himself.” In their nursing home, Bill is a torrent of emotion, flooding with affection and forgiveness toward his alternate self. “He’s crying and hugging himself and saying ‘I love you,’” Solomon laughs. But Ted, “even on his deathbed, all he can really muster up is a kind of vaguely fond pat on the hand and a smile. And that’s it. Even at the very end, he’s not quite sold on himself.”
“It’s not like Ed and I have really had this conversation, because we never really have,” muses Matheson. “But you can see where a lot of bad feelings would come from. Ted’s dad is just brutal in a really hard, cold way. And he has no mother.” Plus, the screenwriters point out, Bill and Ted do share the actual experience of “being lied to and murdered by themselves. That happened.”
Parisot, whose other most famous film (the perfect Galaxy Quest) shares a strain of optimism with Face the Music, recalls watching Winter and Reeves snap seamlessly back into character. “They worked very hard at it, but you could also tell they’ve been best friends for years,” he says. “Their physical comedy is effortless. You don’t notice it. But those two guys, when something happens, they’ll both turn at the same time, look at each other and look at the door. They’re like one person reacting to things, and you’re watching.”
Along with Winter and Reeves, several members of the original Bill & Ted cast rejoin for Face the Music, among them Amy Stoch (who went on to earn a Ph.D after her days playing Missy), Hal Landon Jr. (whose immortal impression of Reeves as Ted in Bogus Journey will never be topped), and perhaps most welcome of all, William Sadler as the diva himself, Death. The English princesses Elizabeth and Joanna, who escaped the 15th century to rock out in the present with their now-husbands Bill and Ted, however, have been played by different actresses in every film.
When asked if an effort was made to recast either of the original set of princesses, Parisot confirms they took a different approach: “It’s sort of like Spinal Tap where the drummer keeps exploding so they keep putting a new drummer in,” the director says. “We sort of looked at it like, oh, yeah, we can keep doing that. We can’t mess with the other ones. It was also an attempt to contemporize it a little more.” Jayma Mays and Erinn Hayes, who play Joanna and Elizabeth, respectively, are also each more than a decade younger than their fiftysomething counterparts Winter and Reeves, but “they’re closer in age than you would suspect,” Parisot says.
Bill and Ted, too, might have returned a decade ago if Face the Music hadn’t endured a non-non heinous journey of its own to the screen. Matheson and Solomon first gathered with Winter and Reeves to spitball ideas for a third Bill & Ted movie over barbecue at Winter’s house in 2008. Parisot came aboard as director seven years ago. But it still took years of groundswell support from fans, a John Wick-led Keanu-ssaince, the efforts of self-described “cheerleader” Steven Soderbergh, and several false starts before the film scraped together the funds to shoot last year—albeit with only 37 days and half the budget they’d counted on to complete it.
In the years since 2008, Matheson and Solomon have watched the world change and the premise they’d written—about reality itself becoming unhinged in a world whose problems no one knows how to fix—start to hit strangely close to home. “Chris and I would never want the world to be in the messed-up shape it appears to be in right now,” Solomon says, “but it did turn out to be a backdrop that, bizarrely, we had coincidentally presaged a decade ago.”
Whatever state they’d have found us in, however, the world will always need Bill and Ted. “It’s a universal thing to want to rebuild, or head towards something that’s utopian for all of us, you know?” Parisot says. “That means you need hope. And that’s what those guys are. They’re ludicrous optimists. They have absolute hope.”