For a movie in which the world could end at any moment, “Bill & Ted Face the Music” is awfully sweet and cheery.
And for that, we have to thank Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan, who 30 years ago were the sweetest and cheeriest of teen heroes and are now hanging onto that into middle age. They’re not the smartest of heroes, of course, but they know what works for them: As Ted says at one point in this movie, “Maybe we should always not know what we’re doing!”
But “Bill & Ted Face the Music” does know what it’s doing, which is to preserve the essence of the characters played by Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves even as it dumps a most unpleasant midlife crisis and an even more heinous threat to reality as we know on their still-shaggy heads.
Written by original “Bill & Ted” creators Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon and directed by Dean Parisot (“Galaxy Quest”), it’s a movie that would rather be charming than frantic, and one that ups the stakes without feeling the need to get louder or more aggressive.
And that means it fits nicely into the sweet, goofball “Bill & Ted” universe, which began with 1989’s “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and included the 1991 sequel “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.” When it came out, that first film was not well liked by critics, many of whom couldn’t figure out what to make of teen heroes who were not stoners or malcontents. Instead, Bill and Ted were good-hearted, earnest kids who didn’t really have the brains to pull off the air of erudition they thought they were adopting, but were pretty sunny and likable anyway.
In the initial movie, which slowly became a sleeper hit, Bill and Ted were sent traveling through time to collect historical figures so that they could do a bodacious history report and Ted wouldn’t flunk out and be sent to military school, which would have ended their beloved-if-inept metal band, Wyld Stallyns. They got their phone-booth time machine from an emissary from the future, Rufus (George Carlin), who was sent to help them because the future depended on Wyld Stallyns becoming huge stars and writing a song that would bring everyone together.
“Face the Music” picks up the story 25 years later, with our heroes still trying to write THAT song even thought their career has pretty much tanked. They’re married to the medieval princesses they found in the first movie (now played by Jayma Mays and Erinn Hayes), and they now have daughters, Billie and Thea (Bridgette Lundy-Paine and Samara Weaving), who are essentially smaller, smarter Bill and Ted knockoffs.
(One quibble: In the first two movies, the princesses were played by actresses who were roughly the same age as Winter and Reeves – so why, in this one, do we have actresses who are more than 10 years younger?)
At any rate, the pressure to write a song to unite the world has gotten heavy over the decades. “We have been banging our heads against the wall for 25 years,” says Ted. “And I’m tired, dude.”
“Ted, we have a destiny to fulfill,” Bill insists. “Think about our fans, dude!”
“Bob and Wendy will totally understand,” Ted says. “Eileen, we haven’t heard from for several years.”
Of course, a sad and resigned Bill and Ted would be most bogus companions for 91 minutes of screen time, so a time-travel pod arrives on their front yard and out pops Kelly (Kristen Schaal), who happens to be the daughter of Rufus. She whisks them off to the future, where things have gotten a lot fancier since the first movie, and where the Great Leader is Holland Taylor in place of the original’s moonlighting rock stars Clarence Clemons, Martha Davis and Fee Waybill.
Great Leader, who clearly is not terribly thrilled with this whole Bill & Ted future cult, tells the guys that they have exactly 77 minutes and 25 seconds to write and play the song that will bring the world together, “or reality will collapse and time and space as we know it will cease to exist.”
That’s marginally higher stakes than getting back to San Dimas in time to do a history report — so Ted, who often seems like the dumber of the two but actually comes up with a lot of good ideas, decides that since Rufus told them that they did write that song, they should use their time machine to visit their future selves at a time after the song was written, and steal it from themselves.
“Ted, you have had many counterintuitive ideas through the years,” Bill says proudly, “but this is the counterintuitiviest of all!” (If there’s a blooper reel of Winter trying to say counterintuitiveiest, I’d like to see it.)
This leads to Present Day Bill & Ted jumping back and forth through time, trying to find Future Bill & Ted at exactly the right time but instead encountering Crappy Lounge Act Bill & Ted, Pretentious British Bill & Ted and Bulked-Up Prison Bodybuilding Bill & Ted, among others. It seems to make perfect sense to these guys even if it’s a bit confusing to those of us who aren’t quite as smart, and it gives Winter and Reeves the chance to go full Eddie Murphy and play a plethora of excellent roles.
(It also fits with the recent spate of time-travel movies that can make your head hurt if you think about them too much: Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” Charlie Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” Max Barbakow’s “Palm Springs.” Did all the filmmakers somehow sense that we’d all have an unconscious desire to escape 2020?)
But there’s more going on than just Bill and Ted hunting for themselves; there’s also a killer robot from the future played by “Barry” costar Anthony Carrigan, who fortunately for Bill and Ted and for us is no Terminator. And Billie and Thea also get involved, doing their own time traveling to get their dads a killer band that includes Jimi Hendrix, Louis Armstrong and Mozart. And eventually, the Wyld Stallyns old bass player and nemesis from “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey,” Death (William Sadler), pops up as well.
It’s silly and occasionally a little slow, and it could use the kind of in-person audience that it won’t get in these pandemic days. But if you felt any affection for “Bill & Ted” in the past, you’ll feel it again here, because the movie rides on the same kind of goofy charm as its predecessors. Winter and Reeves, meanwhile, manage to make the years and the mileage show without losing that essential Billishness or Tediosity; maybe they weren’t born to play these guys, but it’s still a lot of fun when they do.
As for the ending … well, you have to figure that the movie has painted itself into a corner, because they’ve gotta play the song but no song can be so bodacious that it instantly unites the world.
But then they actually figure a way out of that corner, and damned if it isn’t most triumphant. Party on, dudes.