Dir: Dean Parisot. Cast: Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, Samara Weaving, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Kristen Schaal, Anthony Carrigan, Holland Taylor. PG cert, 89 min
Can a song save the world? It’s the oddly profound question at the heart of the otherwise dopey, rambunctious Bill & Ted Face the Music. But that’s always been a part of the DNA of these films – an exquisite mix of philosophy, history, and the “woah, dude” cant of two Californian slackers. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and its sequel Bogus Journey, didn’t stand out as the funniest, wittiest, or even most original films of the late Eighties and early Nineties, but there was always a stirring earnestness to the adventures of Ted "Theodore" Logan (Keanu Reeves) and Bill S Preston, Esq (Alex Winter).
As they rocketed through time, space, and the afterlife, often with the aid of a rickety time-travelling phone booth, their motto of “be excellent to each other and party on, dudes” became its own kind of escapism. If only life really were that simple. Bill & Ted Face the Music, a long-brewing third instalment, doesn’t change a single ounce of this formula. It’s gloriously uncool, unmodern, and uncynical.
When we last saw Bill and Ted, back in 1991’s Bogus Journey, they’d finally achieved rock stardom – well-positioned now to write the song that would unite mankind, as a prophecy has foretold. But nearly three decades have since passed by, and the duo has failed to come up with the goods. These days, they’re playing to fraternity crowds more interested in the fact it’s two-dollar taco night. So far, so mid-life crisis. Then an emissary from the future (Kristen Schaal’s Kelly, the daughter of George Carlin’s character from the original films) turns up with a dire warning: if they don’t write the song in question by 7.17pm – 77 minutes and 25 seconds from now – not only can utopia never be achieved, but “reality as we know it” will cease to exist.
Our heroes come up with the most brilliantly stupid of plans: why don’t they just steal the song from their future selves? Who cares if that doesn’t make any sense? Bill & Ted Face the Music is unfazed by sense or cinematic convention. Rapper Kid Cudi turns up to spout some scientific claptrap – a neat, little parody of sci-fi’s tendency towards intellectual smugness (hello, Tenet). Winter and Reeves have fun with a whole string of future Bills and Teds. In one iteration, Bill is a washed-up divorcee in a Guy Fieri flame-shirt and flat cap. In another, Ted is a top hat-donning English fop. But the film’s greatest pleasure comes from just how easily these actors slip back into all the “bodacious”, “most triumphant” air-headedness of Bill and Ted. These characters are a rare example of two cinematic man-children, now deep in middle age, who come off as endearing rather than wildly irritating.
Screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, who first created Bill and Ted back in their improv days, are now so familiar with the universe they created that they can play around within it as much as they like. It’s a loose, shaggy tone that’s heartily adopted by director Dean Parisot, who may be new to the franchise but already has a cult comedy under his belt in 1999’s hilariously weird Galaxy Quest. Here, there’s deliberate chaos to the way plots and subplots collide – Bill and Ted not only have to save reality, but their marriages (to two 15th-century princess they picked up in the travels, here played by Erinn Hayes and Jayma Mays). Meanwhile, their identikit daughters (Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine, the latter delivering a pitch-perfect recreation of Reeves’s bemused, blissed-out expressions) race through history to bring together the world’s greatest back-up band, enlisting the likes of Jimi Hendrix (DazMann Still) and Mozart (Daniel Dorr). One of Bill and Ted’s former bandmembers, Death (William Sadler), makes a grand return. There’s also a robot assassin riddled with insecurities (Anthony Carrigan) – it’s all in the anything-goes spirit of these films.
“Sometimes things don’t make sense until the end of the story,” the heroes are told early on. It’s true – Bill & Ted Face the Music is so carefree in its execution that its raison d'être only really becomes clear in its final moments. Reeves may now be an action hero, thanks to The Matrix and John Wick. Winter is now the celebrated documentarian behind 2018’s The Panama Papers. But there’s something about the Bill & Ted films, shot so early in their careers, that’s stood the test of time. This third instalment gives no room for doubt as to why. We could all do with a little dose of Bill and Ted’s optimism – the simple belief that kindness and camaraderie can bring us all together. It’s not really a song that saves the world, but the hearts of those behind it.