Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
Directed by Stephen Herek
Written by Christian Matheson and Ed Solomon
Starring Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, George Carlin, Terry Camilleri, Dan Shor, Tony Steedman, Rod Loomis, Al Leong, Jane Wiedlin, Robert V. Barron, Clifford David, and Hal Landon, Jr.
90 minutes, Rated PG
When I was in middle school, I became friends with a kid in my class named Jason. To be fair, I already knew Jason before middle school because we were both in Cub Scouts together, but it wasn’t until middle school that we saw each other more than two hours a week and really connected as friends. In middle school, we were assigned to the same “team” and ended up having almost all of our classes together. By the end of middle school, I had moved to another town, but we were fairly well inseparable for the two years that we did attend school together.
There are a lot of things in the pop culture arena that I still enjoy because of my adolescent introduction to them by Jason. He got me into Elfquest and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the original comics, not the cartoons). He loaned me books by J. R. R. Tolkien and Anne McCaffrey. He helped me to understand that Star Trek: The Next Generation was not just the rip-off of the original series that the first couple episodes had led me to belief. He introduced me to Aliens and Willow. He introduced me to the whimsical work of Ralph Bakshi (most notably his 1977 classic, Wizards). He foisted Monty Python’s Flying Circus on me, and Danger Mouse, and made me a fan for life. He also, as I’m sure you have guessed already, introduced me to Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
That last one was somewhat by accident. It was a brand new film when we saw it. I was spending the night at his house that weekend and he suggested this movie as an activity for us to do together. I had not heard of the movie, which only made Jason all the more excited for me to see it. He tried explaining what it was about– something about two surfer dudes who meet Abraham Lincoln– but what struck me most about his description was the mention of George Carlin. I knew George Carlin.
My mother was a big fan. We had a respectable selection of his vinyl records at home, but they were verboten. She would have grounded me for life had she known I had been listening to them. I found him very funny, was struck by how much comedic mileage he managed to get from material that was essentially the ramblings of an armchair linguist (“Am I getting on the plane? Fuck you. I’m getting in the plane!”), but did not always have any clue as to what he was talking about.
I agreed to go see this mysterious new movie, admittedly confused as to why Jason’s parents were allowing us to go see anything that starred George Carlin. Naturally, I had no money for the ticket, but Jason’s family fronted me. They were way wealthier than my family, but never once appeared to hold it against me. He was a really good friend to me.
Needless to say, Jason and I were quite enamored of this movie. So much so that we went to Country Fair Cinemas and saw it a second time on a subsequent weekend. This time, we took our friend, Thad, with us and he ruined the whole thing by griping afterwards about how the time travel logistics didn’t make a lick of sense. “If Socrates came to our time,” he insisted, “a huge paradox would be created when he went back. He would tell someone, maybe write about it. And then there would be a recorded record in the past of Bill and Ted, and there’s not. It doesn’t make any sense.”
And here’s the thing: Thad was right. It didn’t make one iota of sense. But I didn’t care. Even as much as I loved time-travel fiction (and still do), the fact that Napoleon never mentioned in his journals to Josephine that he disappeared for a while because he came to San Dimas to go bowling didn’t matter at all. I could not have possibly cared less, and neither could Jason. What we saw when we watched Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was a first-rate comedy that walked a line between goofy and intelligent. It wasn’t about the physics of time travel to us; it was about the hysterical juxtaposition of all these historical fish out of water. It was about how that guy from River’s Edge and the dialogue-less vampire who got staked by Corey Feldman in Lost Boys made the world a better place by writing a song that accidentally made everyone in the future want to be kind to each other. Billy the Kid could have stayed in 1989 and had a set of quintuplets with Joan of Arc and our opinion on it wouldn’t have changed.
“It’s not even an original movie,” Thad insisted. “They stole the phone booth idea from Dr. Who.”
This might have been the hardest that twelve-year-old me rolled his eyes throughout the entirety of 1989. I simply didn’t care. The movie had made me feel good for a little while, and that was my take-away.
In 1989, I was in seventh grade. When this movie was released, we were nearing the end of the school year. I was not happy, in general, with my lot in life. My father was absent. My mother worked several jobs to make ends meet. My sister had gone off to college and, essentially, wiped her hands of us. My life was, for the most part, coming home from school and taking care of my little brother until it was time for bed. I spent a lot of time at the library. There, I could get books and music, and they showed free movies in their auditorium twice a week (it was truly here that my interest in movies that would not normally be of any interest to a teenage boy began to be fostered and nurtured). At school, I had lots of friends– but all of them, to a man, were misfits like myself. We were the awkward kids who liked uncool things and didn’t know how to talk to girls any better than we knew how to throw free throws. We wrote science-fiction stories, read comic books, could quote The Life of Brian, and got into arguments about why the laser beams that shot out of Cyclop’s eyes didn’t break his neck or give him whiplash from the recoil. Adding to this: it had recently been announced by my mother that she and her boyfriend would be getting married in the upcoming summer, a union that would be forcing us to move to another town entirely by the beginning of the next school year. I began to withdraw more and more from people because it didn’t make sense, in my mind, to become closer with people if they were just going to be taken away from me when the big move came around. I was lonely. I was angry. I needed a dumb movie like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to make me laugh.
At the time, my two biggest friends were Jason and Paul, a friend who has been mentioned in these pages before. Paul went to a different middle school, so we had to be a bit more active if we were going to see each other and spend time together. The extra effort that went into maintaining our friendship meant the world to me, and it made the friendship itself mean more to me than the others. Jason had decided that he wanted to attend University High for his eighth grade year, which meant that he was also moving when the second semester closed. He also didn’t see the point in maintaining relationships with people who were no longer going to be a part of his life. By the next school year, I, too, would be gone. We were very much in the same place mentally in regards to our peers. Oddly, it brought us closer together.
The strangest thing to me now about my friendship with Jason– I’ll come back to Paul in a moment– is that, in retrospect, it doesn’t seem much different than the other friendships I had at the time. I don’t recall us having truly meaningful conversations that I didn’t have with other people. I mean, I don’t remember us talking about crushes that we had on girls. I don’t recall asking advice on how to cope with a life situation that I found depressing. I have no recollection of anything beyond conversations about video games, movies, book, and television shows. Though I do remember the two us collaborating a lot. Not on anything of import. Certainly not on anything that we ever finished. They were just ideas we batted around, stories we’d write together, comics that we would storyboard. Sure, we’d always talk about filming this or that, but these were the delusions of adolescent teens and nothing that I really think we truly believed we were capable of (it should be noted, for the record, that Jason would eventually grow up to film several low-budget schlock horror monster films that are just as terrible as he intended them to be). One collaboration now that sticks out in my head– a comedy where a struggling writer travels through time to collect inspiration from writers of the past– was clearly inspired by our love for Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It’s partly why he is one of the first people I think of whenever this movie is mentioned. In my mind at the time, Jason and I were Bill and Ted: inseparable friends, feeding off each other’s creative energy to make art that might one day save the world.
Inherently, friendship is what this film has always been about to me. The truest sort of friendship. The sort that lasts forever. The type of bond that remains intact regardless of time and era. The type that doesn’t always presents itself even once in a lifetime. Which now brings me to Paul.
Paul and I were also, in a sense, Bill and Ted, and like these fictional dunderheads, we found our unity through music. Don’t get me wrong: Paul and I had far more in common than just an interest in the same type of music, but I can’t recall another friendship in my lifetime that revolved so heavily around the same taste in music. Paul and I had been friends since grade school, but it was in high school where we became the closest– I lived with his family for a short time, in a sewing room that had been converted into a makeshift bedroom. More so than Jason, Paul was the friend who I could count on for advice or a shoulder to cry on. We did rely on each other. We saw each other though terrible girlfriends, horrible jobs, and monumental life changes. Unlike Jason, however, Paul’s exposure to the things that I was interested in was more limited. He didn’t read books as fervently. His tastes in comics or movies and television shows was more specific than mine. I was simply more likely to go to a movie that I had never heard of than he was, and I was less susceptible to being easily entertained. Paul knew music, though. Every brand of it.
It was with Paul that I saw Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, at the same theatre where I saw the original with Jason a couple of years prior. Paul was also a fan of the original film, but I think now that Paul’s attraction to it had more to do with the music and how it was interspersed throughout the film. I remember (strangely) having a conversation as we walked to the theatre about how the bands featured on the original films soundtrack were far more obscure and lesser-known than the bands on the soundtrack to the sequel. Paul was afraid that the better-quality soundtrack might lead to a lesser-quality film and had several examples at the ready of times that this had happened in the past.
Paul’s fears turned out to be partially founded because, in my opinion, the second film was inferior to the first. The second film was, however, funnier than the first. William Sadler’s performance as a beleaguered Death is one of the single funniest screen performances of the 1990’s. But the film’s humor wasn’t really what drew me to the original– it was the film’s optimism and promise of a better, united future. I’m not sure I could adequately articulate that until after I saw the second film, but, it’s true. As funny and endearing as I found the first film to be– especially Terry Camillerri as Napoleon– I never really considered the film to be much of a comedy. At the very least, it being a comedy is not what I loved most about it. The second film is darker, more pessimistic. Its themes are more about mortality and less about uniting the world with one song that prompts people to be excellent to each other. The soundtrack was indeed killer, though, and I dubbed a copy from Paul’s cassette tape onto one of my own after we had returned from the theatre. I dubbed a lot of cassette tapes from Paul.
Over the years, Paul and I sort of lost track of each other. A couple of years ago, via the magic of social media, we were able to find each other again, though our actual legitimate communications with one another were few and far between. During the pandemic, we truly began to reconnect. I don’t believe that, cosmically, our reconnecting was an accident, because here’s a solid truth about Paul: he has honest-to-goodness seen me at my worst, if even from at a distance. Life-altering divorce, idiotic career decisions, drug addiction, severe depression; Paul has seen it all from me. He knows how to recognize it. Due to circumstances far too complicated to get into here, when the pandemic hit, I was left in my home, essentially, in quarantine without the company and support of my wife and children. I was working ridiculously long hours, risking exposure, and then coming home to an empty house. I was barely holding it together. Paul recognized that, and I am grateful for it.
I would be remiss, however, if I gave Paul all of the credit for keeping me sane during a very trying time. I have another friend who was there as well. Even more so. He is someone I have long considered a friend, but not to the extent that I do now. Before, he was “a Jason”, a person who shared interests with me. During the pandemic, he became “a Paul”. He checked in on me often. He encouraged me when I didn’t feel like writing. He offered advice when I needed it. Eventually, he was asking me for advice when he needed it. Some days we were just shooting the shit about movies and television shows. Always via text because social distancing, you know?
His name is Matt, and I am now forced, twenty-nine years after seeing the second installment for the first time, to continue this accidental tradition of equating the important friendships in my life to movies in the Bill & Ted franchise. Matt and his husband will, whether they like it or not, be forever equated in my mind with Bill & Ted Face the Music. I’m sorry that they get stuck with the worst of the series. I assure you that they are just victims of chronology.
As I’m sure readers are aware, the third installment of this series was released in theatres and for Video on Demand this past weekend. Naturally, I wanted to see it, given my already-established-here love for the franchise. I was not, however, too keen on going to our local multiplex to see it. Movies in a legitimate theatre are still, to my mind, a bit too frivolous to risk exposure to COVID-19. I make exceptions for the grocery store, but my family needs to eat way more than I need to sit in a room filled with strangers in a cinema, even if we are distanced at the recommended six feet. Streaming the movie through Amazon is, of course, an option, but the $20 rental price struck me as a bit too steep for just me sitting home all alone at my house. I hemmed and hawed a bit about this dilemma with Matt via Facebook Messenger, and he took me by surprise by inviting me to his home to watch it with him and his husband.
I debated with myself about whether or not to accept this kind invitation. I knew that Matt and his husband, Ashley, had also taken the pandemic very seriously, and had allowed few visitors into their home since the state lockdown began. Ultimately, I left the decision up to my wife and her comfort level. I was grateful when she presented no issues with the invite because I very much missed watching movies with them.
Matthew and Ashley run a weekly movie review podcast out of their home. I have been a frequent guest on their program, but we usually go to the theatre to watch a new movie and then retire to their dining room to record. During the pandemic, when there were no movies in theatres to review, they altered their format to review new movies premiering on numerous streaming platforms with the occasional classic they hadn’t gotten around to yet (I participated in a discussion about 1974’s The Conversation back in July). Since the pandemic began, when I joined them, we recorded the episode via Zoom. This collaboration– watching and reviewing Bill & Ted Face the Music— would be the first movie I had seen with them since November, and it would also be the first time that I had sat with them in their living room and watched the movie from the comfort of their home. In addition, it occurred to me later, it would prove to be the first time that I had been inside anyone’s home but mine and my mother-in-law’s since the pandemic struck.
Matt and Ashley were consummate hosts. They gave me a tour of their new home (they had moved during the pandemic) and introduced me to a YouTube channel that has movie reviews they enjoy. We grilled hot dogs on their back patio and laughed at Matt’s story about calling the Marvel Comics headquarters back in the 90’s to pick some bones with their current editor-in-chief. We had conversations about various movies, comic book art, and why people keep insisting that critics are not enjoying Tenet when the data shows that they are, in fact, enjoying it very much. Of course, we also watched Bill & Ted Face the Music and then recorded a podcast where we had a lively discussion about whether or not we liked the film. I am still flabbergasted to learn that neither Matt nor Ashley have ever seen the previous two movies.
My take on the film is decidedly flawed. I enjoyed it and admit to laughing a lot, but the franchise seems to be heading in a direction that I am not at all interested in. My critical beefs with this particular movie are not things that I find easy to overlook: I think Keanu Reeves is clearly uncomfortable in the role now, I found the subplot with Bill and Ted’s daughters tedious and probably unnecessary, and I wish that there had been more music interspersed throughout. I did, however, really enjoy Dennis (I urge you to see the movie for no other reason than to find out what the hell I am talking about). In the end, I don’t think I will be revisiting this movie as often as I do the other two. But there’s also the chance I will.
I talk often in these pages about the experience of watching particular films for the first time. This blog, in many respects, is most oftenaoften the nostalgia that surrounds seeing certain movies– no matter how terrible– for the first time. The experience of seeing this film is near the top of that list, and I will not forget it, even if I should happen to actually forget what movie we were watching. It was wonderful to see my old friends again. It was even better to connect with them. It was even better to feel connected to them— the rare guest in their brand new COVID-19- free abode. If there’s one good thing that came from the pandemic, it is that.