Before the review itself, a word on scheduling. Reviews will be going up on Fridays from now on, as I’m finding it easier to get them written and uploaded with my new work schedule if I shoot for Friday rather than Thursday.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
Dir. by Stephen Herek
Starring Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter and George Carlin
Two metalheads from Southern California, Bill and Ted, are about to flunk out of high school by failing history. The evening before their big class presentation, they are visited by Rufus, a time traveler who tells them that their band’s music will usher in a utopian era of world peace – a band that will never happen if they fail history. The duo uses his time machine to visit various points in time, “borrowing” famous historical figures and bringing them to the present to help with their presentation.
I don’t believe that I saw this movie in theaters. I would have only been seven when it was released, and it doesn’t seem like the sort of movie my parents would have taken me to. However, I know that my parents saw it, as our VHS copy was purchased used from the video store down the street from where we lived in Ohio, and we moved to England in 1990. I don’t know how old I was when I first saw it, but it can’t have been too much older than that. I’d probably seen it at least a dozen times by the mid 90s, and it’s one of the VHS tapes I took with me when I moved away for college.
This movie really has no business being as good as it is. If you read that plot synopsis above, it sounds more like an SNL sketch than it does an actual movie. It was a low-budget movie without any significant stars (George Carlin was famous as a stand-up comedian but wasn’t really a movie star), with a frankly ridiculous premise, being released at the tail end of a cultural movement that was already fading away. So of course, it received two sequels and is widely hailed as a classic 30+ years later.
I think a major part of the movie’s success is in the casting of its two leads. Keanu Reeves had already been in half a dozen movies before this, but Bill & Ted was his big breakthrough role. He’s absolutely perfect in the role of Ted, affably dopey without ever really playing into many of the Hollywood slacker or pothead stereotypes. He’s paired wonderfully with Alex Winter, whose Bill is marginally more on the ball but still definitely cut from the same cloth as Ted is. It’s hard to see how the film could have possibly been as successful with other, bigger names in the roles (supposedly both River Phoenix and Sean Penn auditioned).
The movie’s portrayal of its historical figures is just as goofy as its leads are, and I think it’s deliberately so. It’s not really interested in saying anything really profound about the relationship of the past and the present. So the historical figures represent the sort of broad caricatures that Bill and Ted might have been familiar with. Napoleon is a short asshole, Billy the Kid is cool because he’s a cowboy, and Sigmund Freud is always shown holding something phallic. The movie’s primary interest is to be entertaining, and what’s more entertaining than seeing Genghis Khan dismantling mall security in a sporting goods store? Or Napoleon throwing a profane temper tantrum because he threw a gutter ball while bowling?
A couple things about the movie haven’t aged all that well. It’s very much a capsule of its late-80s time period, so there’s some casual homophobia in the dialogue. And the movie’s idea of what constitutes important historical figures is still very white male European, with token female and Asian characters (Joan of Arc and Genghis Khan) who don’t really have any dialogue. They’d make more of an effort at diversity in the sequels (especially in the most recent one, Face the Music), but the lack of it in the original is quite noticeable now.
One thing that some people might see as having aged, but I don’t really have any problem with, is the musical selection. Bill and Ted are presented as wannabe heavy metal musicians who idolize Eddie Van Halen. However, most of the movie’s soundtrack consists of what would now be termed “hair metal”, a poppy genre that is often derided by “serious” metal fans. However, hair metal was THE biggest genre of metal in 1989. The sort of metal that most modern-day audiences would think of (thrash, death metal, etc) were still fairly niche subgenres that wouldn’t have been familiar to general audiences. Sure, I can see a Bill & Ted who listen to Slayer and Death, but I think that would have resulted in a very different sort of characterization for the two that wouldn’t fit with the goofy tone.
Goofy is definitely the word for Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. But it’s a movie that knows just how goofy it is, and embraces it. It’s just an enjoyable, low-stakes ride through time-travel shenanigans. Paradoxes? Butterfly effects? If you want those, you can just watch Back to the Future instead. Bill & Ted are too busy partying with Abe Lincoln.
-Often there will be a song that I’m very familiar with from a movie’s soundtrack, but will have no idea who did it until I randomly encounter it when listening to an album years later. That’s the case with Extreme’s “Play with Me”, the song that plays during the mall chaos sequence. I only knew it from that scene, and never bothered to look up who it was by, until decades later when I was playing a Guitar Hero game and found the opening verses of one of the songs to be familiar. And then it got to the chorus and I recognized it.
-Genghis Khan is played by Hollywood stuntman Al Leong. As mentioned all the way back in my Big Trouble in Little China review, Leong was in pretty much every single action movie of the late 1980s, making him a cheat code for those games where you try to connect two actors or movies by chaining co-stars together (so-and-so was in Movie X with so-and-so, who was in Movie Y with…)