Friday, November 13, 2020

Friday Fun With Franchises: The BILL & TED Saga (1989-2020)

ast summer, the long-awaited third episode of the BILL & TED series, BILL & TED FACE THE MUSIC was released at select movie theaters and on Premium Video on Demand because of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, I bitched about how pricey a streaming rental was on this blog, especially as many were jobless at the time, and decided to wait until the cost went down. It recently dropped (it’s at $5.99 on Amazon Prime), but before I watched it, I went back and re-visited the previous two entries, which I felt was needed as I hadn’t seen them in decades. 

As a teenager in the ‘80s, I was the perfect age to appreciate the inaugural effort, Stephen Herek’s BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE (1989), and I indeed loved it when I caught it on video (I haven’t seen any of the BILL & TED movies on the big screen). As folks who’d be reading a film blog like this would most likely know, Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves portray Bill S. Preston Esquire, and Ted “Theodore” Logan, a dumb slacker duo in San Dimas, California, who travel through time in a telephone booth to gather historical figures in order to pass their History report. 

This adventure is given to them by iconic comedian George Carlin as Rufus, who comes from the future – 2688 to be exact – where the fate of civilization hinges on whether Bill & Ted can pass their class and are able to keep their band, Wyld Stallyns, together. Yes, this is stupid, cartoonish stuff but despite some clunky moments the film’s good natured spirit, and the wide-eyed performances of Reeves and Winter really pull it off. 

The basic joke of these characters is while they’re both blissfully stupid, Winter’s Bill is the smart one who gets things quicker than Reeves’ Ted, with Bill often having to help Ted get up to speed. When he gets it, they perform an air guitar salute to each other accompanied by a brief guitar shredding sound effect. 

Loads of funny, quotable lines are littered throughout (“Strange things are afoot at the Circle K”) this loony lark, but the most memorable dialogue is such oft repeated phrases as “excellent,” “bogus,” “party on,” and “yes, way.” All of these were also heavily used by Wayne (Mike Myers), and Garth (Dana Carvey) in the WAYNE’S WORLD movies and SNL sketches (Carvey even said “I remember I always thought ‘Aren’t we just doing Bill and Ted?’”).

EXCELLENT ADVENTURE had decent box office, but it largely gained a cult via cable showings and video rentals. This led to the 1991 sequel, Peter Hewitt’s BILL & TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY, which I considered a letdown almost three decades ago. However, over the years I’ve encountered more than a few folks that preferred it to the original (one who even said it was their favorite film ever). This made me want to re-evaluate the movie, and see if I’ll still consider it a fairly forgotten follow-up. 

BOGUS JOURNEY is definitely better than I recalled, but still nowhere as fun or funny as the first time around. This time, the utopian world of the future is threatened by a terrorist (Joss Ackland) who sends evil robot versions of Bill & Ted to go back to the past in order to stop the real Bill & Ted from winning the San Dimas Battle of the Bands. The evil robots kill Bill & Ted by hurtling them off of Vasquez Rocks, a formation featured in many movies and TV shows (the film even excerpts the Star Trek episode that uses the location at one point). 

William Sadler as The grim reaper, or simply “Death,” appears and tells Bill & Ted that if they challenge him to a contest and win, they can return to their lives; if they lose they have to stay in the afterlife. The joke here is that Death didn’t expect them to chose games like Clue, Battleship, and Twister, but it works and makes for one of the film’s funniest scenes. 

So instead of bouncing around through history, they run around mostly in Hell, which doesn’t look like they thought it would (“We got totally lied to by our album covers!”), where they face their childhood fears, and encounter Satan himself. The last third involves Bill & Ted’s showdown at the Battle of the Bands showdown with their robot counterparts, who have kidnapped our heroes’ girlfriends. 

I didn’t care for the evil robot Bill & Ted plotline. The material concerning them seemed lazy, and crude like in a bit where their heads are removed while clowning around. The Sadler’s Grim Reaper fares a lot better -the longer the Igmar Bergman’s inspired character is on screen, the more likably wacky he gets - but a couple of Muppet-like alien geniuses called The Station seem really out of place here. Still, I’m glad I rewatched it because it’s a better sequel than I remembered, and it got me in the mood to catch up with the third chapter in the two dudes’ saga. 

While in the 29 years since BOGUS JOURNEY, Reeves has become an international movie star, and Winter has become an acclaimed documentary filmmaker, there was still major interest in the duo re-uniting for another BILL & TED movie. The project, which has been in development for over a decade, finally came to fruition in the last year, but had the bad luck of being scheduled for release during a worldwide pandemic. 

For those who risked a trip to one of the few theaters showing it, or who ordered it up on VOD, BILL & TED FACE THE MUSIC was embraced as a worthy sequel with the spirit and goofy humor of the previous entries intact. When we catch up with Bill & Ted, they are in a rut, having never made good on uniting the world and saving the universe with a song. They again go through a series of wacky misadventures to achieve this lofty goal, while their daughters played by Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine recruit famous musicians from the past, much like how their Dads plucked famous figures from history in the first one. 

Reeves and Winter aren’t the only returning cast members as Sadler is back as Death, Hal Landon Jr. reprises his role as Ted’s father, and Amy Stoch again plays Missy, the husband-hopping former step mother of Bill & Ted. Joining the cast is Kristen Schaal as Rufus’ daughter (Carlin briefly appears in archival footage), SNL’s Beck Bennett, sadly barely used, appears as Ted’s brother and Missy’s new husband, Anthony Carrigan (Barry), as a killer robot, and Holland Taylor as The Great Leader. 

Incidentally, Bill & Ted’s girlfriends now wives, formerly referred to as The Princessess, have been played by a different pair in each film - Kimberley Kates, and Diane Franklin in EXCELLENT ADVENTURE; Sarah Trigger, and Annette Azcuy in BOGUS JOURNEY; and now Jayma Mays, and Erinn Hayes. Hmm, wonder why none of the previous actresses wanted to reprise their roles? 

Despite the somewhat messy last half hour, FACE THE MUSIC is a sweetly silly ride that largely rekindles the fun feel, and lovable absurdity of the previous escapades. Fans who haven’t seen the first two should seek them out, as this follow-up might not resonate as much without the back story. Sure, this third chapter steals a lot from what came before, but as Bill asks “How’s that stealing if we’re stealing it from ourselves, dude?” Cue bodacious air guitar salute.

More later...

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