Janus Film Review Special: Bill & Ted Face the Music (2020)

Updated: Mar 21

Format reviewed: Blu-Ray/Warner Bros. (2021)

“Greetings, my excellent friends.” I had a big smile on my face a third of the way into Bill & Ted Face the Music. A somewhat clunky first half hour reintroduces us to our now middle-aged titular characters, 30 years after conquering the world as mega rock stars 'Wyld Stallyns'. We find them lingering in the 'where-are-they-now?' file, following many failed attempts at writing 'the song that will unite the world'. They are still married to their medieval princesses, Elizabeth and Joanna (played by Erinn Hayes and Jayma Mays), though it seems those relationships are (and not in the ‘plug-it-in-and-turn-it-to-11’ sense) a little bit rocky – possibly a result of Bill and Ted’s innocent insistence on doing everything together, including marriage guidance counselling. No strangers to existential journeys and taking encounters with legends of history in their stride, Bill and Ted remain committed to fulfilling their destiny, helped in large part by the undying faith of their daughters, Thea and Billie, excellently played by Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine. Thea and Billie dig everything their dads do and are scholars of rock music (and beyond) in their own right. Deep and meaningful discussions about the subtle nuances of Jimi Hendrix’s performances at the Fillmore East and Monterey Pop Festival show that the apples haven’t fallen far from their respective trees.

It is as this backstory locks into place that the film settles into gear, rekindling the likeable, goofy charm that made 1989’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure such a winner. Instructed to write the song that will unite humanity before time and space are destroyed (of course), Face the Music continues the frivolous time-hopping of its predecessors without feeling like a re-tread. To that end, the film invites even more historical figures along for the ride than the first, amusingly piling anachronism upon anachronism. It is a film which allows one of history's most influential and revered rock guitarists to jam with one of history's most influential and revered Classical-era composers. As time unravels, the world’s greatest baseball player fleetingly swaps places with the President of the United States, Queen Elizabeth I finds herself transplanted to suburban California, and Jesus Christ plays cowbell as part of an interdimensional supergroup. This is Bill and Ted, after all. Alongside the rather frenetic introduction of these many new characters, there is a tasteful reference to the late George Carlin, whose character of Rufus played such a key role in the first two films. His legacy is continued by the presence of Kristen Schaal as Kelly, Bill and Ted’s new time-travelling guide, whose performance is both endearing and feisty in equal measure.

Crucially, Face the Music allows Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves to inhabit multiple versions of their respective Bill and Ted characters, resulting in some bizarre – and bizarrely moving – moments. Winter, these days more widely known as a documentary film-maker, clearly relishes the opportunity to revisit the character that made his name. Reeves (rarely the most lively of actors) takes much of the lead from Winter’s exuberant, excited-puppy-dog performance, and seems to take a bit more time to settle back into a familiar rhythm. Regardless, there is no doubt that the affable chemistry between the two leads is present and correct.

Famously, the Bill and Ted characters originated as ad-hoc, semi-improvised stage performances by writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon. With a little bit of encouragement from Matheson's famous screenwriting father, the characters were developed into the focus of their own big screen, time-hopping excellent adventure – a surprise hit upon its release in 1989, and responsible for the triumphant introduction of a bodacious new lexicon into pop culture. Matheson and Solomon have made no secret of their enduring affection for the eponymous duo, which is evident in their script for Face the Music. In a business where the return of beloved characters can often be fumbled by indifferent creatives, and sequels are rarely written by the original screenwriters, it is refreshing that Bill and Ted’s third feature reunites so many of the people that made it work in the first place. A prime example of this is the return of Wyld Stallyns’ bass player – Death. William Sadler remains a hoot in the role, though the film certainly keeps you waiting for his entrance. Still smarting from an acrimonious split with the band (“Dude! You were playing 40-minute bass solos!”) and a disappointing solo career – which Thea and Billie characteristically have encyclopaedic knowledge of – Death is nevertheless called upon in our heroes’ dire hour of need. (Initially, I hesitated to mention the Death character as I thought his return might be shrouded in secrecy. However, he features on promotional material for the film, so I needn’t have feared grim repercussions).

Recent years have seen an increase in so-called 'legacy' sequels and Face the Music is more belated than most. But it is, in the words of Ted, a “most joyous occasion” without a cynical bone in its body. As noted, all involved seem genuinely pleased to be reunited, with love for both the characters and the mythos permeating the film’s lean running time. However, as the plot unfolds, there is one thread that feels less satisfyingly developed than the others: the subplot involving Bill and Ted’s wives. As their husbands and daughters embark on their respective adventures to save the world, the princesses’ own adventure feels undercooked and almost superfluous. It gives the impression that much of their arc resides on the cutting room floor. Though a shame, it doesn’t derail the film. The chemistry between the leads is as strong as ever and the new additions to the cast slot effortlessly into the established ensemble. For a completely harmless ninety minutes, Bill & Ted Face the Music summons the viewer to uphold a most bodacious message of unity and is a timely reminder to “Be Excellent to Each Other.”

Tom Bonard.

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