Bill & Ted Face The Music: Surprisingly Most Triumphant and Mostly Woke
This issue’s theme revolves around the unintended consequences and impact of our creative works. Throughout their epic trilogy, William Stanley Preston, Esq. (aka Bill) and Theodore Logan, III (aka Ted) have had to come to grips with a most extreme example of this butterfly effect. What starts as two flunking teenagers thrashin’ around on guitars in their garage, results centuries later in a future technological utopia where goodwill and music reign supreme. The third installment, Bill & Ted Face the Music, finally answers the question of how Bill & Ted united the world through song, while reconciling some of the shortcomings of its predecessors. It is a refreshing ending to the series, which came as a welcome surprise, as I personally worried that the new Bill & Ted would be a dated, cliché, and poorly delivered reboot.
For those who need a recap, in the first installment, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, high school slackers Bill & Ted are visited by Rufus, an emissary of a future Earth civilization, a utopia that is a direct result of Bill & Ted’s band Wyld Stallyns which would unite people through its transcendent beauty and bring all the world together under their mantra and creed “Be excellent to each other!” and “Party On Dude!”. Rufus traveled back in time to help Bill & Ted with their history project, because if Ted failed his history project then his dad would send him to military school and the band would never exist. So, Bill & Ted get in Rufus’s phone booth time machine and go back in time to gather up historical figures to have at their history project presentation, and also fall in love with 15th century princesses Joanna and Elizabeth along the way. Bill & Ted pass their history presentation, vow to actually start practicing their instruments, and finally form the band Wyld Stallyns with the princesses so they can write the music that will unite the world.
The dream is born. Sure they had a time machine to help, but mostly what Bill & Ted needed was the knowledge that the music they wanted to make was important, that it mattered in some way. This inspires them to put themselves in a position where they can continue to make music together, where they can motivate themselves to actually practice. Luckily Bill & Ted had a man in a cool trench coat and sunglasses traveling back in time to get this message across. Most people are not so lucky and, without fate on their side, and barring fortune and fame, must rely on subtler sorts of inspiration and validation to pursue their dreams, often also under the threat of some sort of proverbial establishment man trying to send them to some proverbial military school. The first film introduces one of my favorite threads of the Bill & Ted universe, where Bill & Ted have the ability to will into existence causal time loops. When Ted’s dad, the police chief, locks all the historical figures in jail for causing a ruckus at the mall, Bill & Ted are scheming outside the jail and happen on the idea that they might just steal Ted’s dad’s key in the future and then travel back in time hide the key in the tree right next to them. Voila! They find the key and go set everybody free! And so, through their shear optimism and creativity unfettered by doubt or intellect, Bill & Ted improvise their way through this hiccup in their plans. This improvisation, unchained from causal logic, is perhaps the most musical thing about Bill & Ted. They are just like jazz musicians improvising a song, taking an unexpected note or bit of feedback and following it, so that the composition going forward subsumes all the happened before it, mistakes and all, rewriting the meaning of the past to fit the present and the future they want to shape.
In the sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, De Nomolos, a fascist villain from the future, is disgruntledly stuck in the utopic future of music and love set in motion by Bill & Ted. Fun fact: “De Nomolos” is Ed Solomon (screenwriter and producer for Bill and Ted series) spelled backwards. Anyway, De Nomolos sends evil robot duplicates of Bill & Ted back in time to kill the real Bill & Ted, thereby changing the future. Even in an improbable utopic future, fascism will be lurking. The script poses that our human nature doesn’t converge on a shared idea of value and meaning, excellent! De Nomolos sees the utopia based on music and happiness, as a frivolous waste, and probably dreams of a society that lauds skyscrapers, and wealthy extravagance, at the expense of individual’s freedoms and happiness—sound familiar? Anyhow, De Nomolos’s plan at first succeeds and the evil robot doubles kill Bill & Ted. But the two find a way out of hell by challenging the Grim Reaper to a series of games in order to return to the land of the living. They win and return to Earth, and with the help of an alien named Station, build good robot thems to battle the evil robot thems. Bill & Ted rush to the battle of the bands where De Nomolos has their girlfriends, the former princesses Joanna & Elizabeth, tied up. De Nomolos has set up cameras broadcasting what he thinks will be his triumphant defeat of Bill & Ted to the entire world, and so, unfolding live on broadcast to the entire world, Bill & ted defeat De Nomolos with the help of their causal loops again. Wyld Stallyns comprised of Bill, Ted, Death, and their girlfriend’s then put on a hell of show, and the whole thing is broadcast around the whole world. In fact, this event is what launches Wyld Stallyns to worldwide fame, the first step in uniting the world and paving the way for utopia. But it is not just the fact the song they play is a worldwide broadcast around the world that launches Wyld Stallyns career. The audience at the battle of the bands and around the world also witness the battle with De Nomolos and whether they interpret the whole things as a really good performance, or an actual battle with an evil time traveling fascist, it is this shared experience and narrative that enraptures the world. Narrative can be abstract; not just a “once upon a time”, but a way of framing the way we experience. Through narrative and conflict we gestate emotions in our day to day lives, and similarly we gestate art. The world watches as Wyld Stallyns must fight the fascist foe for their chance to play, must fight for their princess loves, must outwit and impossibly imagine their way out of an impossible situation. All of which makes for the narrative background to rock out to the victorious anthem full of harmonized solos and heavy drums that is the hair metal rock of Wyld Stallyns. Bill & Ted somehow make rock great again, framing it as the fuck the man, rebellious, and free art form that our nostalgia purports was rock n’ roll’s origin.
So you can tell by how I go on, I love the first two films, but then there are the things that nag at me. The films underlying premises and the lack of diversity in characters and focus all gave me a pause and my initial distrust of a sequel.
1) The whole premise that the world will be united by a hair metal rock band seems borne of western narcissism. That we will broadcast our culture across the world, modern and somehow objectively good. It stinks of global diffusions of coca cola and mickey mouse conquering the globe post World War II. Where the power of capitalist imperialism works to confuse people into conflating money with culture. Where the technology of globalization and broadcasting in and of itself will save and unite of us.
2) The other underlying premise of the films is that Bill & Ted’s philosophy of good will of “be excellent to each other” is all you need to make a utopia. Sure, any fan of the film is drawn in by their invincible positivism, naïve curiosity, and loyal comradery that all comprises Bill & Ted’s trademark good-natured and relaxed vibe. But without further explanation, we surmise that the future utopia is a result of the world catching on to this infectious goodwill. But there is a danger lurking in this idea, abdicating any further social responsibility past being nice. It rejects the idea that change comes through novel forms social and political organization. Not to mention there is a privilege held in being able to just be chill and excellent to other people, without struggling for change, or perhaps being not excellent to the people that oppress others.
3) The films fall squarely in the bromance genre solely focusing on the male characters. The women are tertiary, and both films are an easy “F” on the Bechdel Test. Yeah the princesses get to join the band, but they have no agency in the plot, and they are certainly not lauded or remembered in the future utopia. In fact part of the comedic tension is that Joanna and Elizabeth are both in a relationship with the monolith that is Bill & Ted, who even propose to them at the same time using the “we” pronoun throughout as they finish each other’s sentences. I mean it is somewhat of a beautiful polyamorous relationship in a way, but I think really the screenwriter making a joke out of just how two dimensional Joanna and Elizabeth’s characters are. Also, on another note, it goes entirely unexplained why we never see Bill and Ted’s real mothers. We only ever see Missy, their mutual stepmother, who is not much older than them, but marries both of their fathers, one after the other.
4) The irresponsible occasional use of “fag” should give make anyone uncomfortable, well anyone that is not already a homophobic knob. The slurs are not directed at anyone hatefully, but go completely unchecked, blending in with wallpapers chill bro background of the pastiche of Bill & Ted. These uncomfortable slurs hang in the air, put there simply to bolster Bill & Ted’s boys being boys image and perhaps elicit a chuckle.
5) The main cast is almost entirely white in both films, nuff said, we know it’s the common denominator for the history of Hollywood.
6) I love hair metal, but not all the time? The films are sort of peripherally about music, but very narrowly focused on the metal subculture that has bred Bill and Ted. The soundtracks are a bit monotone in both films and I wish the films explored more music and more genres, even just different sub genres of metal would be nice.
Many of these issues are addressed in Bill and Ted Face the Music. Decades have passed and Bill & Ted live next to each other in the suburbs, with their wives and daughters, confusingly named each after the other: Theodora “Thea” Preston (Bill and Joanna’s daughter) and Wilhelmina “Billie” Logan (Ted and Elizabeth’s daughter). Billie and Thea are sort of a less poser edition of Bill & Ted. They are music nerds, hip to all genres, and they have been practicing music their entire lives. But they have still inherited their father’s trademark relaxed and positive attitude and slacker pride, opting to live at home with their parents.
But all is not well with Bill & Ted. Their music career is tanking, they have not yet written the song that will unite that world, and their wives are starting to be disillusioned with their whole shtick of being overgrown kids stuck at the hip and completely reliant on each other. One fine morning, Kelly, the daughter of Bill and old time-traveling escort Rufus, swoops in on her updated phone booth time machine and takes Bill & Ted to the year 2720. There, Kelly’s mother, the Great Leader, tells them that they must write the prophesized song by 7:17 p.m. that night or else their reality will tear itself apart. And so four time traveling escapades ensue; Bill & Ted steal Rufus’s old machine and attempt to steal the song from various future versions of themselves; a la Terminator, the Great Leader tasks a time traveling robot named Dennis with the task of killing Bill & Ted in the hopes that will restore some cosmic balance to the universe; using Kelly’s time machine, Billie and Thea travel through the past to collect all the best musicians throughout history to help their fathers in writing the prophesized song; meanwhile Joanna and Elizabeth travel with future versions of themselves to see if there is a version of Bill & Ted they can be happy with. Bill & Ted meet various unsuccessful and bleak future versions of themselves, before meeting their elderly counterparts in the year 2067 who give them the USB drive labeled “Preston / Logan, MP46”. Billie and Thea return to their home in the future successfully having gathered Jimi Hendrix, Louis Armstrong, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, mythological Chinese founder of music Ling Lun, and a prehistoric cave drummer named Grom. As a bonus, due to time and space collapsing on itself, a displaced Kid Cudi teleports onto their doorstep and joins the crew. Anyhow, eventually the assassin robot Dennis kills Billie, Thea, the musicians, Bill, Ted, and himself, sending them all to hell. In hell, with the help of their daughters, Bill & Ted reconcile with their old bandmate Death who returns everyone to the land of the living. They all gear up to put on a performance of the song. But as time and space are getting more and more jumbled they end up in a traffic jam at mile marker MP 46, which Bill & Ted then realize is the location written on the now broken USB flash drive holding the prophesized song. Bill & Ted also realize that the “Preston / Logan” refers to Billie and Thea and not them, and that if the song is to unite people across time and space it needs to be performed by everyone throughout time and space. Joanna and Elizabeth show up, having realized that they love Bill & Ted and are happiest with them as they are. Together Bill, Ted, Joanna, and Elizabeth, with the help of quantum physicist expert Kid Cudi, split into infinite versions of themselves, to travel throughout time and space distributing instruments to all beings through time to participate in the song. Meanwhile Billie and Thea conduct the new and improved Wyld Stallyns supergroup while Bill, Ted, and Death join on guitar and bass. Reality is saved!
Now what of this Wyld Stallyns song that saved the universe? It’s pretty dope. Titled “Face the Music”, it is a rock anthem at heart, but full of variation and surprises. Drums brimming with reverb and heavy as the hell from which our heroes escaped, which makes sense since cave drummer Grom is sitting in, and has a heavy style from a lifetime of playing with mammoth bones for sticks. The song is full of electric guitar solos as we might expect, but expertly rendered by the insatiably brilliant Animals as Leaders, whose ringleader and guitarist Tosin Abasi took over the mantle from Steve Vai for laying down the guitar licks that make up Bill & Ted’s trademark air guitar move. The guitars are not just restrained to cookie cutter chord progression harmonized epic solos; the chorus of guitars build on each other in restrained slow crescendos, and often break free and out of control at times and follow paths of their own. The chorus may sound like an arcade fire sing song chorus, but it is reinforced by the explosive guitar performance from Animals as Leaders. As they should be since in the movie it’s supposed to be freakin’ Jimi Hendrix playing lead. The chorus, introduction, and bridge are further reinforced by, dare I say a trumpet? Yes that’s right a horn has made its way into the Bill & Ted universe, which in the movie is being played by Louis Armstrong, but in our reality is performed by the amazing Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah. Bringing in an accomplished jazz musician like Christian Scott is a big step for the Bill & Ted franchise and well rewarded, with the clear, sharp, and confident trumpet bringing a much needed bounce to this title track. Scott also has a very brief cameo in the movie, where you can spot him playing a member of the Great Council in the future. Furthermore the lilting flute, piano, and synths add some variety to the track. While the end track of the original Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a goofy fun romp from Power Tool and Dweezil Zappa, and the sequel Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey rocked out with KISS’s “God Gave Rock and Roll To You” featuring Steve Vai, “Face the Music” is far more original, and a great collaboration between Animals as Leaders and Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah: a collaboration between tech-death metal and jazz greats I never ever thought I would hear. The chant chorus ala Arcade Fire is a bit cheesy, but acceptable given that it is the entire universe through time and space chanting together.
The other Wyld Stallyns track is also wonderful, “That Which Binds Us Through Time: The Chemical, Physical And Biological Nature Of Love; An Exploration Of The Meaning Of Meaning, Part 1” which Bill & Ted perform at the beginning of the movie at the wedding of Ted’s younger brother Deacon. Meant to demonstrate the experiments Bill & Ted are performing in their search for the song that will unite the world, the song is a bizarre rock prog dirge featuring throat singing, theremin, bagpipes, and steel pan. Keanu Reeves and Alex Winters actually learned all the instruments so they could convincingly perform them on screen. In fact, music supervisor Jonathan Leahy revealed that the final song was actually reconstructed from the footage of Reeves and Winters on screen performance which they had insisted on doing without backing track. The scene in the movie, and others of Bill & Ted’s unsuccessful music careers in the alternate futures, is a refreshing reminder of the difficulties and pitfalls of a musician’s career.
While I credit Jonathan Leahy with the direction on the original music and the scoring, the soundtrack is a mixed bag. While on screen the film progressed from its predecessors in areas of diversity of gender and race, the soundtrack did not. With the exception of one artist, POORSTACY, every other group tapped for the soundtrack are white men. Overall the sound of the soundtrack is a little more variable than its predecessor, but still limited to the rock and pop genres. I do not so much like the use of vanilla rock groups that add to this homogenous soundtrack like Culture Wars, Cold War Kids, Blame My Youth and cheesy punk like FIDLAR. One big question is why include Kid Cudi in the movie but refuse to put a Kid Cudi soundtrack on the film? After all, doesn’t Kid Cudi and Kanye West’s “Erase Me” rock out pretty hard? But Jonathan Leahy seemed to have been pretty reluctant to have opened up the space for anything other than rock, or rock adjacent, in the Bill and Ted universe, and the whole trilogy is thereby lacking in anything remotely close to hip hop or rap. Anyhow, on the other hand, I applaud the use of lesser known newcomers to the music industry Alec Wigdahl and POORSTACY. I also love that the movie updates its staple metal tracks to use Mastodon and Lamb of God. Also it is much appreciated that Mastodon specially composed their track “Rufus Lives” for the movie. Also shouts out to industrial rock sound added in courtesy of two tracks from Big Black Delta. The Weezer track “Beginning of the end” is probably the best Weezer track we have been given in a while. Including Weezer on the soundtrack also nicely completes its own time loop, since Weezer’s first gig ever was opening for Keanu Reeves’s band Dogstar in 1992.
While the soundtrack stayed a boy’s club, the film itself was refreshingly no longer just a bromance. Billie and Thea, played by Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paineare, are my favorite part of the movie. Perfectly incorporating mannerisms of Bill & Ted, they coolly and confidently pave their own way in the plot and take the initiative to have their own time travel adventure. Of course then there is the big reveal at its actually Billie and Thea who compose/conduct the song that unites the world. This interestingly discusses how men are often credited with achievements of women, as we know that no one in the future utopia seemed to know anything about Billie and Thea. What plays best about Billie and Thea’s characters is that whereas Bill and Ted, were conceived very much as bros, Billie and Thea aren’t boxed into a teenage gender stereotype.
A shred of character is also added to Joanna and Elizabeth who we finally see acknowledging the strangeness of Bill & Ted’s relationship and getting in some time traveling of their own. However in true Hollywood bullshit fashion, Joanna and Elizabeth are played by actresses notably younger than our aging heroes. And so each Bill & Ted movie now has a different set of actresses playing Joanna and Elizabeth. In Bogus Journey Sarah Trigger and Annette Azcuy replaced the original actresses Diane Franklin and Kimberley Kates. In Face The Music, Trigger and Azcuy are replaced by Jayma Mays and Erinn Hayes, who do an excellent job no doubt, but whereas Winters and Reeves are 54 and 54 respectively, Mays and Hayes are 39 and 43. Maybe the previous actresses were unavailable or declined the role, but either way the casting plays into the typical double-standard where older male actors are consistently cast across from younger female actors, but the reverse rarely happens.
The trilogy is slightly updated to catch up with what diversity is expected in films nowadays. Whereas in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, all the historical figure with the exception of Genghis Kahn, were white westerners, this movie sees Jimi Hendrix and Louis Armstrong, along with fictional character Grom, a prehistoric African cave drummer, and Ling Lun a mythological Chinese flutist. Oh and Kid Cudi just pops up now and then. Not a lot to say here, They did the minimum to avoid being the monotone in culture and skin tone that the first films were.
Overall I am glad they finally made the third Bill & Ted installment which provides some timely lessons in 2020. No longer is the underlying premise of the films that the world simply got very amped about a metal rock band and decided to lay aside their differences. Face the Music shows us that creating utopia required the whole world collaborating over time and space to make something beautiful together. The moral of the story seems to be that selflessness and improvised collaboration makes for art that makes a lasting impact. Furthermore, being excellent to each other doesn’t quite cut it, when it’s not paired with real action, like splitting yourself into infinite copies to hand instruments out to everyone through time and space.
It had long looked like it was never going to happen. Many people say that what tipped the scale in its favor was the success of the John Wick series propelling Keanu Reeves back into the superstar spotlight, and giving incentive to the studio to greenlight the third film. And in that respect it has already paid off, earning more than its budget even with its Covid era release. Most importantly, the film provided a satisfying ending to the series and hopefully creates a path forward for a spin off series starring Billie and Thea, fingers crossed. Bill & Ted screenplay writer Ed Solomon stated, “It wasn’t when we were first writing it, but as we saw Brigette and Samara inhabit these roles, I thought for sure if there was interest and people wanted to carry this forward, the Bill & Ted spirit, I would absolutely let those characters carry it forward. I think we’ve finished with the Alex and Keanu Bill & Ted story. I think it’s done, but if people were interested in a Billie & Thea continuation, I think it’d be cool.”
This article is dedicated to Ted, my fiancée, who kind of looks like Theodore “Ted” Logan when she has a certain haircut.