The best classified ad I ever saw read as follows: “Jimi Hendrix tribute band forming. Lead guitarist needed.”
Straight up. If I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’.
What makes this the best ad I ever saw, rather than simply the funniest, is the sentiment behind it. Beyond the mental image of two guys in a basement with bass and drums, thumping their way through the bottom end of the Hendrix catalogue, lies the beautiful notion of those guys being so in love with Jimi’s music that they have to play it even though they lack the talent to do so. Man, that’s just so rock ‘n roll it hurts.
In this post-Napster, Clear Channel-dominated era of corporate-driven musical mediocrity, there yet exists, incredibly, a segment of the population who clings to the idea that rock music will rise again to straighten our spines, shatter our chains, and save our sterile souls. The loving arms of the God of Rawk await us all in a paradise of bitchin’ tunes if only we could find that one anthem, replete with a blistering solo, to deliver us. The Guitar Hero with a Thousand Faces—Clapton, Frampton, the Nuge, Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie J. Malmsteen (pick your era)—will guide us to some nebulous salvation, if only we believe.
It is this idea, writ large and ridiculous, that drives the Bill & Ted movies. Minor cultural phenomena when they came out—it’s nigh-impossible to find someone in his 30s who can’t quote at least half a dozen lines of dialogue from them, they’re now re-released as a boxed set with a third disc of bonus material. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey comprise the epic saga of a pair of SoCal boneheads whose light-metal garage band will end global warming, wipe out poverty, and bring about world peace. And all without Bob Geldof.
Excellent Adventure introduces us to Bill S. Preston, Esq. (Alex Winter) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves), goofy 16-year-olds from sleepy San Dimas, California, who comprise the sublimely misspelled “Wyld Stallyns,” who will be a most triumphant band as soon as they get a rhythm section and, you know, learn how to play. Unfortunately, it’s not just talent the boys lack; they’re about to flunk out of high school, and Ted’s dad has already signed him up for military school. Unless Bill and Ted somehow pass history with a miraculous final report, due the next day, Wyld Stallyns will die in utero.
Enter Rufus (ubercool George Carlin), emissary from a future where Bill and Ted’s music is the foundation of all civilization, who gives them a phone booth-shaped time machine and sends them back in time to observe historical events firsthand. When a mishap brings Napoleon (Terry Camilleri) back with them to 1988, they seize on the idea of collecting historical figures to use as visual aids. They impress Socrates with their philosophical insights (“All we are… is dust in the wind”), back Billy the Kid in a saloon brawl, meet a pair of beautiful medieval princesses, and cram Genghis Khan, Joan of Arc, Sigmund Freud, Beethoven, and Abraham Lincoln into the phone booth. After the famous fish out of water run amok in the San Dimas mall and are arrested, there follows the requisite race for Bill and Ted to rescue them in time for their report.
What makes all this fluff worthwhile is Winter and Reeves’ ongoing goon show. Bill and Ted have barely a brain between them and speak in brilliantly realized Surferese—they’re that guy you know who still snickers at the double entendres in Van Halen album titles—but they’re funny and it’s impossible not to like them. Director Stephen Herek identifies what he calls “the puppy factor” in their performances: they play Bill and Ted as a pair of human Labrador Retrievers, ignorant and joyful.
Bogus Journey is the rare sequel that’s better than the first film, with a bigger budget, a more complex plot, and a perfect foil for Bill and Ted. Wyld Stallyns—Bill, Ted, and the princesses from the first film on keyboards and drums—are on the verge of playing a Battle of the Bands which, unbeknownst to them, will be the catalyst that sets all future events in motion. Determined to prevent Bill and Ted from creating their peaceful Utopia, the rebel De Nomolos (Joss Ackland) sends a pair of robot duplicates of Bill and Ted into the past to kill the boys. Indestructible and gleefully evil, the robots succeed handily.
Now ghosts, Bill and Ted are confronted by the Grim Reaper (“How’s it hangin’, Death?”), played by William Sadler, doing a dead-on impersonation of Bengt Ekerot in The Seventh Seal (1957). Before the Reaper can collect them, however, Bill and Ted give him a titanic wedgie and run for their afterlives. Unable to make contact with the living to warn them about the evil robots—a scene where Ted possesses his dad (Hal Landon, Jr.) is pretty damn funny for Landon’s killer Keanu Reeves impression—the boys are accidentally exorcised by some New Agers and banished to Hell. (This sequence is the darkest in the film and disturbed my kids, so be warned.) The only avenue out of the Inferno is to challenge Death to a game and win, which they do, in Battleship, Clue, and Twister (Death, as it turns out, is a sore loser). Returned from the dead, Bill and Ted, with the Reaper in tow, set off to stop the robots, rescue the princesses, and save the world.
But the real hero of this film is Sadler. A character actor who tends to the intense or psychotic (The Shawshank Redemption , The Green Mile ), his comic turn here is brilliant. That said, the Reaper also creates the biggest plot problem in a movie filled with them: once Death is on Bill and Ted’s side, how is anyone in danger anymore? One is well-advised to treat this flick’s cosmological aspirations with the same indulgence one gives a stoner buddy when he realizes that our universe might be a tiny atom in a giant’s fingernail. Just smile and say “whoa.”
Bill & Ted’s Non-Bogus Disc, a collection of special features assembled for the boxed set, is a bit bogus. It offers no revelations to enhance the films, though a conversation between writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon about how Bill and Ted evolved from a recurring improv bit to movie heroes is entertaining enough. The requisite making-of featurette reveals the sheer affection the directors, writers, and Winter retain for the films, but the absence of Reeves in a retrospective of the character that put him on the map is unfortunate. Other features—the first episode of the execrable Bill & Ted Saturday morning cartoon, a pointless glossary of their colloquialisms, and an interview with Steve Vai about lending his soulless guitar sound to Wyld Stallyns (the future is inspired by Vai’s solos; no wonder it’s so sterile)—seem filler. Inconsistent with the movies’ labor of goofy love, it is definitely not rock n’ roll.