BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE (1989) is one of those beloved comedies you take for granted. I hadn’t seen it in 20+ years, so I was kinda afraid it might not hold up. It’s kind of hard to put your finger on why it works so well, and it would be hard to explain why it’s funny if somebody asked. I’m not sure if you had to be there or not.
Don’t get me wrong – there’s a pretty straight forward comical premise: what if a couple of dumb guys got a hold of a time machine and recruited actual historical figures to help with their history test? But for the most part that’s not really what’s funny about it. It’s the particular personalities of the dumb guys, and the reasons they have access to time travel.
Bill S. Preston Esquire (Alex Winter, DEATH WISH 3) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves, THE NIGHT BEFORE) are a Californian version of what we used to call “rockers” and some regions called “heshers” – guys whose lives center around heavy metal and/or hard rock. In the wild you’d expect them to have longer hair and leather jackets, smoke lots of pot and drink lots of beer, but Bill and Ted mostly just idolize Van Halen, talk about “babes,” and laugh at the number 69. They have a band called Wyld Stallyns, which features only the two of them on guitar, an instrument neither of them knows how to play. Still, their worst fear os for the band to be broken up if Ted fails his history test, in which case his dad (Hal Landon Jr., ERASERHEAD), who is a police captain and wears an NRA jacket while off duty, will ship him off to Oats Military Academy in Alaska.
Such an outcome would be worse than they can imagine, because the entire future literally depends on these two kids who, let’s face it, no parent, teacher, counselor or peer believes will have a future. But it’s true: in 2688 civilization will revolve around Bill and Ted’s philosophies. And that is not to say that they’ll straighten out and grow into some sort of wisdom. No – they will just be Wyld Stallyns, but the world will come around to their ways, and transform into a peaceful, rock ’n roll loving utopia where “even the dirt is clean.”
That’s why a guy from the future named Rufus (George Carlin, CAR WASH) shows up in 1988 in a time machine disguised as a phone both and offers it for their use. They travel to different periods and meet Napoleon Bonaparte (Terry Camilleri, ENCOUNTER AT RAVEN’S GATE), Billy the Kid (Dan Shor, TRON), Socrates (Tony Steedman, SCROOGED), Sigmund Freud (Rod Loomis, THE BEASTMASTER), Ludwig van Beethoven (Clifford David, FORT APACHE THE BRONX), Joan of Arc (Jane Wiedlin from the Go-Go’s), Genghis Khan (Al Leong shortly after DIE HARD), Abraham Lincoln (Robert V. Barron, DISORDERLIES), and also two historically-insignificant medieval princesses (Diane Franklin [BETTER OFF DEAD] and Kimberley Kates [VENUS FLYTRAP]) who they fall in love with. Through all these experiences they learn that “the world is full of history.”
They get excited when someone says to “put them in the iron maiden.” They bring their new friends to a mall, a bowling alley and a waterslide park in present day San Dimas, California. There are time travel gimmicks like meeting themselves in another part of the timeline, and – my favorite gag – being able to magically obtain objects by planning to later travel back in time to place them where they need them. It’s like a joke about lazy screenwriting, doing it and rubbing our faces in it by explaining why they can do it, making the shortcut itself more interesting than if they had come up with a more reasonable explanation. Beautiful.
Also there are some great jokes unrelated to time travel, like that Bill’s dad got remarried to a much younger woman (Amy Stoch, “Girl in Bed,” SOUL MAN) – a hot high school senior when they were freshmen – so Bill always calls her “Missy— I mean Mom.”
I love all the silliness of this, but I’m not sure it would work at all without the pitch perfect performances of babyfaced, cynicism-free Reeves and Winter. They seem so thoroughly innocent in their dumbness, so joyful, enthusiastic and supportive. They don’t get mad at each other or grow disillusioned or question themselves – they just forge ahead, and celebrate each victory or good idea with a little air guitar lick. They’re passionate about a particularly shallow subgenre of popular music, and they’re driven more by the assumption that fame would be fun than by any need for artistic expression, and yet it kinda makes sense that their values would serve society better than the greed, competition and exploitation it’s currently built on. Also, it’s just funny to hear them pronounce “So-Crates” and “Beeth-Oven.”
It’s hard to imagine how someone comes up with something like Bill & Ted, but the people who did were rookie screenwriters Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson, who did some version of the characters in a standup routine in college. Their initial script was BILL & TED’S TIME VAN, but they ditched the vehicle idea because of BACK TO THE FUTURE, and they didn’t know that Doctor Who already had a phone booth. The director was Stephen Herek, his sophomore film after CRITTERS. In ’91 he had DON’T TELL MOM THE BABYSITTER’S DEAD, and as I mentioned in that review, I was surprised that that movie’s screenwriters were worried he was too much of a “dumb comedy” guy for their movie. I think based on CRITTERS and BILL & TED he seems like a pretty hip director. They must’ve been mistaking dumb characters for dumb material.
I was happy to find that EXCELLENT ADVENTURE does hold up, and it even looks good – maybe it’s just a good transfer on the blu-ray, and I miss film, but it looks like a real movie. The camera moves like a serious sci-fi picture. Also the score by David Newman (MALONE, HEATHERS) doesn’t play that “get it, guys? this part is funny!” shit I hate in so many comedies.
The guitar on the score, as well as Rufus’ solo at the end, are played by Stevie Salas, who was only 23 at the time. He’s done a ton of stuff since then, but I know of him because he did some projects with Bill Laswell and Bootsy Collins. And here he is doing a pretty solid cover of Funkadelic’s “Good to Your Earhole”:
“Looks like we lost him in the circuits of time, duder.”
But you know what? After watching them back to back, I’m convinced that the first sequel, BILL & TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY – released on July 19, 1991 – is even better than the original. Once again written by Matheson & Solomon, but with rookie director Pete Hewitt at the helm, it’s the rare comedy sequel that takes things to a new level instead of feeling like a somewhat empty retelling of the same joke.
I think the secret here is that they can ditch the original premise – they are not traveling through time to meet historical figures – and dig into the more important elements of these two dudes and the future civilization they inspire. It’s interesting that this sequel came out the same month as TERMINATOR 2, because it’s definitely a riff on THE TERMINATOR. Evil robots from the future – better yet, evil Bill & Ted robots from the future – have been sent to replace Bill and Ted and alter their historic speech at the Battle of the Bands, thus erasing their immense influence on the future.
The villain, Chuck De Nomolos (Joss Ackland, LETHAL WEAPON 2) is an uptight snob from the future who hates that society is based on Wyld Stallyns. He hates that at the Bill & Ted University Professor Rufus brings in time travel guest lecturers Johann Sebastian Bach and Faith No More guitarist “Sir James Martin of the Faith No More Spiritual and Theological Center,” as if they’re equivalent. When De Nomolos makes a speech about his vision of erasing Bill & Ted’s influence, he says, “No longer will we hear this,” and air guitar some hot licks just like those boys do. He sends in stormtroopers to steal the phone booth, but luckily Rufus is able to warn Bill and Ted by attaching himself to the booth using a fluorescent flying-V as a grappling hook. (I wish I could find a picture of that thing – it’s a beautiful design.)
They almost called this BILL & TED GO TO HELL, and the titular bogus journey is in fact a voyage to the other side. The evil robots throw Bill and Ted off a cliff (and spit loogeys on their corpses) so real Bill and Ted become black and white ghosts. Because “it worked in THE EXORCIST – I and III,” Ted possesses his dad and has him make a speech to his officers trying to rally them to stop the evil robots. This is an amazing opportunity for Landon, who just played an asshole dad in the first film, and this time gets to do a dead on impression of Keanu’s distinctive lanky body language.
And the list of delights goes on. They have a very long plummet to Hell, so you get to see Keanu skydiving less realistically than in POINT BREAK (which he filmed right before this, except for the last scene, a reshoot done right after this). They meet both the Devil and God (“Catch you later, God!”). More memorably they meet the Grim Reaper, a reference to THE SEVENTH SEAL’s version of Death, but instead of challenging him to a chess match they beat him at Battleship, Clue, Twister, etc. He’s played of course by William Sadler (DIE HARD 2), who so often plays straight bad guys and jumps at the opportunity to apply that seriousness to this funny, ridiculous character. Together they sneak into Heaven, where we learn that Albert Einstein is familiar with the movie SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT 3 and its original title SMOKEY IS THE BANDIT.
Like in T2, the robots can scan people in Terminator-vision and imitate people’s voices over the pay phone. The BOGUS JOURNEY approach to sequelization is very different from the JUDGMENT DAY approach in that the characters have not changed one bit – their complete stasis as characters is crucial to their appeal. But BOGUS JOURNEY is like T2 in the sense that it feels bigger and slicker than its predecessor. The budget is double what the first one had, but it seems like even more than that to me, because they go so many strange places. In Hell they become children and are terrorized by a creepy-ass Easter Bunny…
…and the disgusting Grandma S. Preston Esquire (Winter in some great old lady makeup). When they need the smartest scientist in the universe they’re hooked up with two weird little aliens (Ed Gale [HOWARD THE DUCK] and Arturo Gil [THE GARBAGE PAIL KIDS MOVIE]) who bizarrely combine into one big one (Tom Allard, THE BORROWER). He’s called Station and he’s recruited to build good Bill & Ted robots, Pee-wee’s Playhouse worthy creations constructed of junk and played by Boogaloo Shrimp and Pop N’ Taco from BREAKIN’ 1 and 2.
This is a good looking movie. I like how the camera moves in EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, but this one goes even further into shooting like a serious, dramatic movie. New director of photography Oliver Wood had done DIE HARD 2, and would later do FACE/OFF. There’s some really great design under the supervision of production designer David L. Snyder (PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, MY SCIENCE PROJECT) and art director Gregory Pickrell (THREE AMIGOS, VIBES), both of whom worked on BLADE RUNNER. We see some fashion, architecture and tech from 2691 and it’s much more appealing than what we saw in that thankfully unused future ending for T2.
Kevin Yagher (FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2–4, THE HIDDEN) and his company did the effects. I love when the evil robots stretch their rubber faces to reveal the mechanics beneath. When they tear open their torsos to show robot parts they do the air guitar thing, and real Bill and Ted do also – even though they’re being threatened they can’t help but celebrate things that are cool. Later the robots have fun by detaching their own heads to dunk in the bedroom basketball hoop.
The prickishness of evil robot Bill & Ted highlights how nice real Bill & Ted are. The princesses know something is wrong when who they think are their boyfriends pressure them to make out because they “used to be pussweeds, but now we’re metal.” Traditional supposed-manlinesss is also represented by an underworld incarnation of Ted’s dad’s friend and military academy namesake Colonel Oats (Chelcie Ross, ABOVE THE LAW), who demands that Bill & Ted “get down and give me infinity,” then bizarrely rants, “You petty, base, bully, bullock, bugger billies. You’re not strong! You’re silky boys! Silk comes from the butts of Chinese worms!”
The one thing tainting this contrast of toxic vs. non-toxic dudes is that in both movies Bill and Ted use a homophobic slur. Back then many people didn’t get how shitty it was to use gayness as an insult, even if it was to insult the literal Devil. (It finally started to be questioned more by the time Kelly Rowland did it to Freddy Krueger in FREDDY VS. JASON a dozen years later.)
I didn’t mention it, but the first movie had a small part for Bernie Casey as the history teacher, and this one has his HIT MAN co-star Pam Grier as the woman in charge of the Battle of the Bands. She looks really fuckin cool, like she could be in Cherry Bomb with Lea Thompson; it may be relevant to mention here that two of costume designer Marie France’s earlier credits were PURPLE RAIN and UNDER THE CHERRY MOON.
The soundtrack includes a ton of Steve Vai (including all the air guitar licks), some Megadeth, some Winger, they quote Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” to bullshit their way through the pearly gates, and play Kiss’ “God Gave Rock ’N’ Roll to You” for the finale. That’s all very on brand, but I think it’s interesting that we see the guy from Faith No More at the beginning and Primus (playing “Tommy the Cat”) during the Battle of the Bands. They’re both Bay Area groups, but also a sign of the shift from the metal/glam/hard rock era to the dawn of “alternative” music. In fact, the first date of the first Lollapalooza tour was the day before BOGUS JOURNEY opened. Primus was on the tour two years later. This was also the week that “Unbelievable” by E.M.F. hit #1, for whatever that’s worth.
BILL & TED was already a legit franchise when BOGUS JOURNEY came along. There had been a 13-episode Hanna-Barbera cartoon called Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures, with Reeves, Winter, Carlin and even Casey providing their voices. Danny Cooksey (T2) played Ted’s little brother Deacon. A second season followed from a different studio, with Bill, Ted and Rufus now voiced by Christopher Kennedy (later in JUNGLEGROUND), Evan Richards (SOCIETY) and Rick Overton (BLIND FURY), who were simultaneously playing them in seven episodes of a live action series of the same title.
Weirdly, Sadler had a cameo as the Grim Reaper on a 1994 episode of Tales From the Crypt (before starring in TALES FROM THE CRYPT: DEMON KNIGHT, but not as the Grim Reaper). As far as I know, Station retired from acting.
Other tie-ins include Bill & Ted’s Excellent Cereal (reportedly not that excellent), several home video games based on the first film, plus Bill & Ted’s Excellent Game Boy Adventure: A Bogus Journey!
There was a DC Comics adaptation of EXCELLENT ADVENTURE and a Marvel one of BOGUS JOURNEY, which spun-off into 12-issues of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Comic Book. BOGUS JOURNEY got a novelization by Robert Tine, whose other adaptations include HARD TARGET, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, WARRIORS OF VIRTUE, RED HEAT, LAST ACTION HERO and CHAIN REACTION. (I wonder if he cut and pasted some of the physical description of Ted for the guy in CHAIN REACTION?)
Reviews of BOGUS JOURNEY were mixed, but Roger Ebert – who had not even seen the first film – gave it 3 out of 4 stars and called it “a riot of visual invention and weird humor that works on its chosen sub-moronic level, and on several others as well, including some fairly sophisticated ones.” He said it had “some of the funniest moments I have seen in any movie in a long time, including one where the Reaper does a little comparison shopping for scythes at the hardware store.”
Box office was slightly less than the first film, despite the bigger budget, meaning it only did okay. That’s probly part of why it took them almost 30 years to do another sequel. That’s kind of a good thing, because it means it was something the filmmakers and the audience that grew over time genuinely wanted, rather than the usual time sensitive Hollywood cash-in on success.
In the mean time, metalhead-best-friend-duos became sort of a comedy archetype. I know the Wayne’s World sketches and movies grew into their own thing and are funny and everything, but I always thought it was weird that they got away with seeming like a bootleg Bill & Ted. Apparently Mike Meyers did Wayne on an earlier show, but the first Wayne & Garth Saturday Night Live sketch aired on February 18, 1989 – the day after EXCELLENT ADVENTURE came out! I find it hard to believe they weren’t at least aware of the BILL & TED advertising when they just happened to write a sketch about two Converse-wearing metalhead best friends who say “excellent” alot, do air guitar, use “party” as an ambiguous verb, talk about “babes” and occasionally use ostentatious vocabulary to contrast with their otherwise seeming like dumb guys. (They also follow the movie in having a joke that involves juvenile homophobic insults.)
WAYNE’S WORLD did turn out to be a good movie and arguably funny sequel, but Wayne & Garth were quickly replaced by Beavis & Butthead as the preeminent dumb metalhead best friend couple. I think all of these characters/shows/movies are remembered fondly, and I can’t imagine Beavis and Butthead won’t be back in some enjoyable form some day soon. But so far BILL & TED is the only one to pull off a decades-later sequel. I think that was possible partly because they’re the only one of these pairs that would be appealing to see grow up a little, but it’s also because of the way BOGUS JOURNEY expanded the story from a joke about time travel to a whole universe of encounters between these two guys and various deities, robots and goofball creatures.
Unfortunately director Hewitt did not, as far as I’m aware, make any other films along the lines of BOGUS JOURNEY. The only other ones by him I’ve seen are, I’m afraid, HOME ALONE: THE HOLIDAY HEIST and GARFIELD: THE MOVIE. His followup to this was TOM AND HUCK. Maybe his THE BORROWERS is good? He also did the Thunder Saga: THUNDERPANTS and THUNDERBIRDS.
But Solomon and Matheson have had interesting careers. Together they wrote MOM AND DAD SAVE THE WORLD and the Eddie Murphy movie IMAGINE THAT. Separately, Matheson wrote A GOOFY MOVIE, the somewhat notorious Ellen Degeneres vehicle MR. WRONG, and RAPTURE-PALOOZA. Solomon was one of the writers for It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and SUPER MARIO BROS. before hitting it big again with MEN IN BLACK. He did the Shandling movie WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FROM?, the first CHARLIE’S ANGELS, LEVITY, the NOW YOU SEE ME movies, and Steven Soderbergh’s Mosaic and NO SUDDEN MOVE. And of course the two reunited for last year’s BILL & TED FACE THE MUSIC.
I don’t know why I didn’t review FACE THE MUSIC at the time. I didn’t think it was perfect, and it was sad that after so many years of talking about it it had to be a VOD rental instead of an audience experience. But it was a welcome bit of goofy positivity in the pandemic era. It was fun to see the two as middle aged fathers but still inseparable best friends. The filmatists found lots of enjoyable BOGUS JOURNEY style gimmicks like muscular Bill & Ted, elderly Bill & Ted, etc. It was great to see Sadler return as Death, the movie is stolen by another weird new character I won’t even specify so as not to give it away (but he’s played by an actor from Barry), and best of all they just found a really good and inspiring way to solve the problem of Bill & Ted needing to create a song that unites the world.
The whole BILL & TED trilogy is a gift, but BOGUS JOURNEY is definitely my favorite.