It’s been 30 long years since Generation X first made the acquaintance of William ‘Bill’ S Preston, Esq. and ‘Ted’ Theodore Logan – that pair of infectiously sunny dim bulbs from San Dimas, California. In that span, we in the audience may have done a lot of growing up, but thankfully they haven’t. Too much, anyways. Yes, Alex Winter (Bill) and Keanu Reeves (Ted) are now 55 and 56, respectively. But in 2020 their oblivious on-screen alter egos seem, on the surface, to be blissfully unaware of the dashed hopes and myriad disappointments that their peers now face in middle age.
At least, that’s how our two seemingly stoned heroes come off at the outset of the long-awaited new third instalment in their beloved comedy franchise, Bill & Ted Face the Music (which is streaming right now in the US, and hits UK cinemas next month). I say “seemingly” because beneath their brain-fried, Jeff Spicoli surfer-dude vibe, the Bill & Ted films have been almost shockingly clean. They’ve never shown a single blunt, bowl, or bong. Vacant complacency just seems to be their natural default setting.
Three decades later, these dudes are still best friends, they still cling to their Wyld Stallyns golden-god rock-star dreams, and they still live in San Dimas. But it turns out they’ve also grown up a bit, too. At least, on paper. They’re both married (yes, to those comely English princesses they met on their first excellent adventure) and they’re both dads to spitting-image daughters (Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine), who seem to have inherited their fathers’ blissed-out, eager puppy-dog mannerisms. And their bond is still as unbreakable as it is co-dependent. We wouldn’t want it any other way.
I know what you’re wondering, though: Is the new Bill & Ted movie any good? Well, the short answer is: it is and it isn’t. There’s plenty in Face the Music for longtime fans to geek out over (their most triumphant signature air-guitar riffage, their excitable dazed-and-confused demeanour, and William Sadler as the petulant pasty-faced Death). Quality is almost beside the point in a piece of pop-culture nostalgia like this. The real point is that, after three decades, we finally have the chance to spend some more quality time in the company of these two lovable idiot savants. Which isn’t something to be easily dismissed. Because in our age of pandemics and toxic political conventions, it’s refreshing to see something so sweet and positive.
If you’re currently in your forties or fifties, this overdue reunion will feel like no small thing. It’s a loving throwback to a simpler time in a lot of our lives before we got married, started our own families, and had to punch the clock in a job we may hate. Both then and now, Bill & Ted are who we still see ourselves as when we wake up and look in the mirror even if we know we’re deluding ourselves. They’re carefree, naïve, and full of it-will-all-work-out-in-the-end optimism. The only difference is, the world hasn’t beaten the snot out of them yet.
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But as Face the Music kicks off, the real world is finally coming for them too. Which raises an interesting question: how do two mediocre men deal with their own mediocrity after being told how totally amazing they will be? Somehow Bill and Ted have managed to skirt adulthood longer than most, and now it’s time to grow up and get serious…well, kind of serious. It turns out that since we last saw our SoCal heroes in the 1991 sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, they’ve been a bit lazy about writing that killer song that would one day unite the world and make them six-string saviours 700 years the future. In fact, nowadays, the Wyld Stallyns are more likely to play to pathetically empty VFW halls than arenas full of adoring babes. And the citizens of the future (with Holland Taylor filling in for the late George Carlin) are growing a bit restless. Especially since time and space seem to be collapsing it on itself like a low-budget interpretation of a Christopher Nolan film.
So Bill and Ted, who once turned cramming for a History test into a metaphor for the fate of future generations, are on the clock once again to write the greatest song of all time before the universe turns into a Moebius Strip. As they zap forward to different points in their future to try and steal the magic formula for “the song” from their older selves, their daughters zap back to the past to recruit a super group of long-dead musical virtuosos to give their dads a hand (Mozart, Louis Armstrong, Jimi Hendrix, etc.). This may sound pretty boilerplate – a too-familiar re-hash of the previous Bill and Ted films, but thanks to director Dean Parisot, it packs some of the same meta sci-fi merry-pranksterism he brought to 1999’s Galaxy Quest. Still, I’ll be honest, it’s probably best if you don’t think about the plot too hard.
Even in their mid-fifties, Winter and Reeves look fairly unchanged – even if you have to squint a little to come to that conclusion. They’re mortals, after all. The waist-tied flannel shirts and 5150-era Van Halen tees are gone, replaced by some well-earned crow’s feet and wrinkles. At one point, Ted tells Bill, “We’ve been banging our heads for 25 years…and I’m tired,” and you can feel the underlying truth in that throwaway line in your gut if you’re old enough to have experienced grunge firsthand.
Still, both actors manage to step back into their roles with such uncanny ease that you might think that all of the times when they were stopped on the street by their fans over the past 30 years to say “Whoa!” count as rehearsals for this very occasion. And their catchphrases (“Most Triumphant”, “Be Excellent to Each Other”, “Party On, Dude!”) still roll off their tongues like hang-ten slacker poetry. Still, the two actors’ greatest accomplishment is how they manage to internalise their own middle-agedness and wrestle with the responsibilities that come with it like psychological lampreys.
Face the Music is stuffed with Easter eggs and call backs that will feel like manna for their fanbase, which was more passionate than sizeable even in their heyday. It’s not all disposable, I-love-the-Eighties signs and signifiers, though. Yet, I’d argue that what the new movie is really all about isn’t so much saving the world through righteous power chords and time travel, but more what it means to be a guy growing old while trying to stay young (and not in the urban hipster way of a once-cool dad dressing his toddler in a Kiss concert shirt).
It’s about staying young and passionate about the things you used to love in a more metaphysical sense. It asks: How do you remain true to your deepest held values (friendship, loyalty, the power of rock) after you’ve already started receiving Saga mailers? In fact, there’s a scene toward the end of Face the Music, when Bill and Ted time travel to pop in on their geriatric selves at a retirement home deep in the future (naturally, they share a room). This Bill and Ted are grey and wrinkly and bed-ridden, but they still have that magical, mischievous twinkle in their eyes. They have a heart to heart with their younger, middle-age selves and let them off the hook for any pain they may have caused. And after you get past the whole make-up f/x sight-gagness of it all, it actually becomes unexpectedly deep and poignant.
Ultimately, what Face the Music shows its ageing target audience is how to…well, face the music. Of time, of adulthood, of growing up. It’s about regrets (as a husband, as a father, and a friend) and the dreams we once had and what happens when those dreams don’t pan out the way we just assume they will because we’re young and solipsistic. The message of the movie seems to be that it’s never too late to realise those dreams, even the silliest ones. That it’s always still possible to rock. Even if Bill and Ted’s brand of rock these days feels less like an Eddie Van Halen solo and more like a wistful Cat Stevens ballad.
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