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‘Bill & Ted Face the Music’ Is a Poignant Tribute to a Bygone Bad Rock Era

The first two films emerged during a time when hard rock and hair metal were huge. It’s not the only way in which this sequel seems to be from a different age.

Bill & Ted Face the Music is built around a nerve-racking premise: Our heroes Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) have a very short amount of time to come up with a song that will unite the planet. If they don’t, the world ends. While watching the movie, my first thought was that I was grateful never to be in such a predicament. (For one thing, I don’t know how to write music.) But then, something else occurred to me: “Oh no, these guys have to write the perfect song? We’re screwed.” 

It’s not because Bill and Ted are dummies — although they are, lovably so — but because, the last time we saw them, they were busy shredding righteously on their guitars. This was a thing young men did during the late 1980s. But the idea that guys with their musical taste could write the one great song left me with trepidation. I’m not sure we should put the fate of Earth in the hands of dudes who really love Extreme.

This long-awaited sequel — the stars have been talking about it for at least a decade — has a clever idea, which is that it would be funny to see these teen knuckleheads as dads and husbands. Everybody grows up, everybody gets old and lame, but what’s most interesting about Bill & Ted Face the Music is how it exists in a world in which the hard rock of these guys’ youth is still the primary form of musical expression. That disconnect provides a poignant undercurrent to everything we see. Bill and Ted are clearly out of step, and out of time.

When I first heard about the movie’s premise, I thought that perhaps Bill and Ted would spend the entirety of the film trying to write the song. (The actual movie, sans credits, runs about 80 minutes, which is about as long as they have in real time to come up with their planet-saving anthem.) But, actually, what Bill and Ted decide to do is hop into that trusty phone booth/time machine — remember phone booths? — and zip into the future in order to track down later versions of themselves. (The thought is that, if the world is still around then, obviously their future selves must have already written the perfect song, and the modern-day Bill and Ted can just snatch it.) 

Meanwhile, their daughters (Brigette Lundy-Paine and Samara Weaving) start piecing together an all-star band to back up their dads, traveling back in time to convince everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to take the gig. For some contemporary flavor, they also enlist rapper Kid Cudi (playing himself). But what Bill and Ted quickly discover is that all the future Bills and Teds, other than being preposterously bizarre in their own unique ways, haven’t written the song. So who did? And what will it sound like?

When Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey came out in, respectively, 1989 and 1991, here were some of the bands and artists on the soundtracks: Extreme, Slaughter, Winger, Steve Vai, King’s X, Primus, Megadeth and Faith No More. In other words, it was an age in which (mostly) mediocre pop-metal and toothless hard rock dominated — at least as far as a certain kind of suburban California white kid was concerned. Bill and Ted were definitely part of that demographic, finding school to be torture and dreaming of rock ‘n’ roll stardom. Watch Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure now, and there’s a beautiful naiveté to the guys’ ambition: If they can just get Eddie Van Halen to join their band Wyld Stallyns, they can’t be stopped.

It’s dangerous to get nostalgic about previous musical eras. Hard rock and metal of the 1980s could be a misogynistic, racist, exclusionary boys’ club. (Thank god Nirvana helped wipe it off the map.) And although Bill and Ted were often depicted as sweet, albeit clueless dudes, the original movie did have its share of homophobic humor. (Lots of the three-letter F-word thrown around when mocking men’s displays of affection — an ignorant attitude that Winter has since condemned and the new movie, happily, does not repeat.) 

But beyond that insensitivity — and, to be fair, that’s a lot to get beyond — Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure largely operated in an environment in which bro-rock was loud but harmless, a once-rebellious musical style that had become the background noise for going-nowhere white teens’ lives. Fittingly for this franchise’s worldview, the 1991 sequel ended with Wyld Stallyns playing an epic power ballad that brings the nations together as one. It’s a very early 1990s idea of what musical unity would sound like: an anthemic, guitar-heavy rock song that’s meant to inspire you to whip out your lighter and sway along.

I don’t want to come down too harshly on this style of music — Faith No More and other groups on the soundtrack are great — but from a 2020 perspective, it’s certainly an old-fashioned way of thinking about what constitutes “popular music.” And in Bill & Ted Face the Music, our heroes are still in thrall to this dinosaur rock. Sure, as the film begins, they’re dabbling in an indigestible mixture of theremin, bagpipes and chanting at a family wedding, but the joke seems to be mostly: (1) Wow, these guys are still terrible musicians; and (2) non-rock music is inherently hilarious and weird. Granted, that’s not the only music that gets satirized — seriously, their old buddy Death (William Sadler) needs to lay off the interminable bass solos — but the film very much espouses a rockist viewpoint, which is appropriate for a modern-day Bill and Ted. I mean, most of the late-fortysomethings I know in real life are still listening to their high school records, too.

Bill & Ted Face the Music’s fondness for bygone rock makes it feel embarrassingly antiquated, like the way your dad holds onto that out-of-fashion pair of shorts or waxes nostalgic about some forgotten piece of once-cutting-edge technology. (The movie’s biggest cameo is exactly the one contemporary rock star guys Bill and Ted’s age would totally dig.) But as Bill and Ted desperately search for that perfect song, what’s left unsaid is that musical styles come and go, with one generation dismissing or reimagining the previous generation’s favorites. They’re essentially chasing something that’s now out of reach, and it’s funny that, for many people, one of the surest signs that you’re getting older is that the music you love no longer seems to be swimming in the zeitgeist. You thought it always would be, but life has a funny way of changing the rules.

No wonder that this mediocre sequel itself seems to coast on old jokes and familiar references, catering to viewers’ fondness for an era that’s no longer relevant. When Bill and Ted were teenagers, they were idiots but full of life and rock ‘n’ roll spirit — they were plugged into their triumphant, devil-horns moment. But like the head-banging music they still worship, they’re no longer at the center of the culture. Kid Cudi is way cooler than them — if they even knew who that is.