'The idea of 'be excellent to each other' is a very good idea' - Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter talk Bill and Ted's comeback
by Shilpa Ganatra
A mere 20 years after San Dimas's finest last graced our cinema screens, rumours began to spread about a third Bill and Ted movie. The pair's cult following might have cried out "no way!", particularly as Keanu Reeves' career went stratospheric soon after, but after another 10 years, we can finally say with certainty: yes way. And not even a pandemic can stop the Wyld Stallyns in their tracks.
Directed by Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest, Red 2) Bill and Ted Face the Music is the third instalment of a much-loved series based on, as Reeves' co-star Alex Winter puts it in a Zoom group call, "simple guys who are always facing these gigantic challenges". Their outlandish missions are aided by a time-travelling phone booth - and a slew of extremely quotable one-liners that have survived the ages.
In Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, released in 1989, their quest was to pass their history class by going back in time and herding a range of historical figures for the school presentation, naturally. The sequel, Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey (1991), found them attempting to escape from the afterlife to defeat evil robot versions of themselves.
In Face the Music, their challenge is to uncover the song that saves the world as we know it. No biggie, then.
If Bill and Ted's magic was found in their dumb innocence (see Keanu's babyface as he mumbles "strange things are afoot at the Circle K" as their wild ride begins), the key question is how the actors, both 55, play a more mature version of themselves now that they're husbands, and fathers to Thea Preston (played by Samara Weaving) and Billie Logan (Brigette Lundy-Paine), who help them in their mission.
According to Reeves - dressed in simple black blazer and T-shirt, his hair shaggy, and background too beige to be anything but a hotel room - there was a balance "to play these guys who are still familiar but not caricatures of themselves from the past".
But scriptwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, who also wrote the first two films, helped modernise it. "The plot of the film was all about facing the music and being in the moment, so that work was done for us," says Reeves. "You see that in one of the opening sequences at a wedding ceremony; they're not playing Van Halen riffs - they've expanded their musical excellence. They've moved on, they've developed from that."
The reviews from the US, where the film was granted an early and streamed release, suggest they have just about pulled it off. New York Magazine notes that "the most successful quality of the film is how close it keeps in spirit and haphazard style to the first two installments, and how it feels proudly unstuck in time".
Bill and Ted first came to our screens when sci-fi pervaded teen cinema. In the years preceding it, Back to the Future, Big (about a frustrated boy who gets his fairground wish of becoming an adult, namely Tom Hanks) and Weird Science (in which two high school kids concoct a sexy woman in the form of Kelly LeBrock) had fared well at the box office. The Young Offenders of their day, Bill and Ted updated the formula by turning the emerging stereotype of slacker good-for-nothings into the film's heroes.
The mix of the characters' failing grades, terrible band and boundless enthusiasm was rich in comedic potential. At a time when teen female protagonists were nary to be found, their metalhead magic helped pave the way for Wayne's World and Beavis and Butthead, as well as a spin-off cartoon series.
At the time of filming Excellent Adventure, the lead actors were 23, and just breaking through in Hollywood. Reeves had become one to watch after movies such as River's Edge and Dangerous Liaisons, and Winter was riding high from the success of teen vampire comedy The Lost Boys.
The casting was inspired. Aside from the neat aesthetic - one blonde and curly-haired, the other tall and dark - the duo brought Bill and Ted to life with alarming believability; their air-guitaring bromance is one to last the ages. Indeed, until The Matrix, Reeves was in danger of it being his defining role.
Its cult success was also down to the light-hearted script. Shunning the complexities of time-travel logistics early on, both films are tightly written, with deliciously silly jokes and hare-brained plots well-suited to the hare-brained leads. It's all peppered with pop culture gags truthful to Bill and Ted's frame of reference: the metalheads profoundly quoting Poison's 'Every Rose Has Its Thorn' in order to enter heaven in Bogus Journey makes it a classic scene.
"The whole experience [of Bill and Ted's] has a warmth to it," says Winter, reflecting on its impact. "That's always been the case with playing these guys because they are joyful and optimistic people, even if they're experiencing hardships.
"This experience [of Face the Music] was particularly warm because there were so many people reuniting. Keanu and I already see a fair amount of each other, but we hadn't seen William Sadler [who plays Death] or Hal Landon Jr [Ted's father] and Amy Stoch [Missy, the stepmom]. So there was this great gang together. It wasn't easy, there were difficult days, but I felt very good with what we made, and great appreciation for having had the experience."
Those awaiting surprise appearances are in for a treat. Cameos are mooted from music stars Dave Grohl and Kid Cudi, but "we wanted to maintain surprises for the audience", says Winter. "There's a lot that no one has seen yet that's in this film - there are several major characters that have not been exposed."
As if to make up for lost time, we're treated to several versions of Bill and Ted too - for starters, the trailer for the movie reveals them as a prison yard duo. Which version was the most fun to play?
"I can't choose that, I don't think there's a 'most' here," says Reeves. "I think it was more that emotionally, the characters got dark, so it was nice to play some darkness against the lightness of it. They're almost exuberantly darker."
Sadly, one key cast member is notably absent: comedian George Carlin, who played Bill and Ted's mentor Rufus, died in 2008.
"He brought class!" says Reeves. "He was down-to-earth, and worked really hard on Rufus. It was really extraordinary to have the chance to work with such an incredible person and artist."
"Keanu and I had both been around famous people even when we did the first movie. But George was a different kind of famous," adds Winter. "This was the beginning of the rock star comedy identity. Pryor, Carlin... They were kind of godlike. I remember being very star-struck by him, and really grateful. He was very open and accommodating, you didn't feel a wall with George at all. He really elevated Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure just by his presence."
Though Face the Music was a long time in the making - it underwent years of script changes and business challenges to bring us to release day - it just so happened to arrive in 2020, at a time when the feelgood maxims of "be excellent to each other" holds more resonance than ever. It's not lost on the lead actors.
"I think it's relevant all the time - I guess now it has more impact because of the situation that we find ourselves in," says Reeves, before adding: "The idea of 'be excellent to each other' is a very good idea."
'Bill & Ted Face the Music' is released in cinemas on September 16