Before Beavis & Butthead, Wayne & Garth, Bud & Doyle, Romy & Michele, and Jay & Silent Bob, there was Bill & Ted, a pair of teenage underachievers with Californian surfer-slash-stoner accents. The duo aimlessly (and innocently) navigated life whilst obsessing over heavy metal music. Bill and Ted were not only best friends, they were wannabe rock-stars; airheads who played air guitar better than their electric guitars, and yet the duo had dreams of jamming with the likes of Eddie Van Halen. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was Bill S. Preston Esquire and Ted Theodore Logan’s first filmic outing. In this first movie, despite being terrible at playing guitar, the pair discover that they will go on to be brilliant musicians and inspirations to future generations who reside in an advanced utopia. This information comes to them via a time traveller named Rufus, sent back to 1988 from 700 years in future. In typical ’80s comedy movie form, Rufus announces a straightforward yet implausible problem for our heroes to overcome: if Bill and Ted fail their final oral report for History class, their band The Wyld Stallyns will not rise to fame and they’ll cease to be saviours of the planet. They must therefore, travel through time and beef-up on their knowledge of the past. Instead, the pair decide to kidnap or coerce “personages of historical significance” and transport them to the present day and into their school presentation in the hopes they don’t flunk history (both at school and in life) and therefore fulfill their destiny.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure stars Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves as Bill and Ted (respectively). The film also stars George Carlin as Rufus, Dan Shor (Strange Behavior) as Billy The Kid, Tony Steedman (Scrooged) as Socrates, Al Leong (Die Hard) as Genghis Khan, Jane Wiedlin (Clue) as Joan Of Arc, Terry Camilleri as Napoleon, Rod Loomis as Sigmund Freud, Clifford David as Ludwig van Beethoven, and Robert V. Barron as a very convincing Abraham Lincoln. Napoleon and Lincoln (thanks to the amount of times I’ve watched this film) have taken over my brain to the extent that I instantly picture Camilleri and Barron if someone mentions either historical figure!
Bill and Ted are undoubtedly iconic characters, and arguably the best roles Keanu and Alex have ever played. As I’ve said, the doltish-duo have influenced many other movie characters from Wayne’s World, Bio-Dome to Clerks and I’m certain that the pair’s final report is the blueprint to today’s tech shows and product reveals, with geeky CEOs of large companies attempting to copy Bill and Ted but failing to bring any of their energy or coolness to the stage.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is filmed and set during a time in which hanging around strip malls was fun (believe me) and a period of time when malls were shiny, new, and romantic. The film was released in February 1989, four years after fellow guitar-playing, time-travelling teen Marty McFly went back to the 1950s and created a multi-million dollar film franchise in the process. Excellent Adventure similarly opens with the leads being late for school after playing guitar in a garage, and with Bill having a slight crush on his stepmom Missy (played by Amy Stoch) this film echoes various elements from Back To The Future; namely time travel, whimsical incest, and the love of guitars. Since the time machine here is a phonebooth instead of a DeLorean, we also have a borrowing of Doctor Who’s Tardis, and the scene in which Beethoven impressively plays multiple keyboards in a music store is reminiscent of the great Vice Versa.
All that being said, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is very unique. Firstly, there’s the slang. Words such as “gnarly” and “bodacious” were already spoken by surfers and skaters but terms like “savoury clothes” were highly original. Adding the prefix “most” or “non” to other words was new to me back when I first watched this film and they went on to become part of non-Californian vernacular.
Then there’s the inclusion of non-stereotypical minority characters; the black History teacher Mr. Ryan (played by Bernie Casey – Revenge Of The Nerds) and a black leader of the future triumvirate, “The Three Most Important People In The World” (played by saxophonist Clarence Clemons) are to this day, an example of not conforming to Hollywood’s racial conventions.
Since I’m on the subject of progressive ideas, I might as well mention the utterly shite cartoon spin-off this film spawned in 1990, which along with Back To The Future and Beetlejuice didn’t live up to the movie that inspired it. The first episode of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures where the pair travel back in time to China, is titled “One Sweet & Sour Chinese Adventure – to Go” 😒. In this episode, there’s multiple (historically incorrect) stereotypes; short Chinese people, a Chinese prison guard dry-cleaning their clothes, and Chinese guards wanting to take photos to name but three. There’s also the line “I thought China was crowded” followed by “give us a few hundred years”. This casual racism along with the trite “Sweet And Sour” in the episode title, not to mention the whitewashed History teacher in the opening credits, made this time-travelling cartoon (ironically I may add) backward in every way. Thankfully, the writers of the film (Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon) weren’t responsible… I say with a sigh of relief.
Back to this film, the soundtrack is another satisfying element. From Big Pig’s “I Can’t Break Away” playing during the opening credits to “The Boys And Girls Are Doing It” by Vital Signs during Napoleon’s day out at the “Waterloo” water park (as well as “Walk Away” by Bricklin and “Not So Far Away” by Glen Burtnik during the oral exam) the soft-rock songs compliment and add to the atmosphere and create a few classic scenes.
Being a comedy, there’s some fantastic lines in Excellent Adventure. Studying outside K-Mart, Ted asks an employee “When did the Mongols rule China?” to which she replies “I don’t know, I just work here”. The pair, whilst in the process of flunking their History class, hilariously refer to Napoleon as a “short dead dude” and Joan Of Arc as “Noah’s wife”. There’s also the scene in medieval England where the pair declare “I am the Earl of Preston… And I am the Duke of Ted” 😆.
Given that this time-travel film cost a mere $6.5 million to make, the movie is expansive and yet not too expensive. This clearly shows in certain scenes; for instance 27th century San Dimas consists of a twinkling, glittery dome containing nobody but three floating leaders wearing 1980s shades. The future, although sparse, looks like a cheese-dream the writers had whilst listening to Disco music. Alongside the crappy-looking “circuits of time”, the relatively small budget of this film is noticeable in these future scenes (as well as what looks like stock-footage of reconstructed Napoleonic wars). The cheap sets however, add to the film’s charm; nothing is serious and neither are the surroundings.
So are there any problems? Well, the timeline makes little-to-no sense. Bill and Ted exist at a juncture of time where things may potentially go awry but a time-traveller from that same timeline who only exists because things didn’t go awry, paradoxically travels back in time to prevent an occurrence that would preclude him existing. In addition we have scenes in which the leads merely suggest out-loud a set of circumstances (going back in time and leaving keys to escape a jail cell) and they magically appear without physically carrying out the said plan. How can they both fail an exam and travel back in time to leave keys in order to pass the exam? And while I’m at it, how will the princesses get on in the modern world without social security numbers? All these issues are of course pointless to argue, as Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure sports a tone of joviality and silliness, so much so, that you ignore any time-based paradoxes. The two lead characters are so stupid yet likeable and the plot so outrageously absurd, that they somehow go together and cancel-out any and all plot problems.
With Napoleon at a water park, Joan Of Arc heading an exercise class, Genghis Khan ravaging a sporting goods store, Rufus breaking the fourth wall and the electric guitar sound effect every time Bill and Ted play air guitar or tickle their palms, everything is potentially surreal but these odd juxtapositions are glued together with a sense of joy and absurdity which is somehow grounded in reality; the reality of school, exams, and romantic relationships. Of course in ’80s teen-movie-form, SPOILER ALERT 😁 Bill and Ted ace their test. This is a very upbeat, feel-good comedy and watching it in the present day makes you simultaneously cheerful and nostalgic (even though “In Time” by Robbie Robb makes me tear-up with sentimentality every time I hear it).
When you’re young, naïve yet optimistic, and looking toward your future, you think your adulthood will be so noteworthy that you will change the world. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a literal translation of youthful optimism; your dreams will come true and you are the centre of the universe. Watching this film as an adult puts you back in that positive zone, albeit for 1 hour 31 minutes. Unfortunately, despite the film’s optimism in regards to the future, the twenty-first century isn’t as rosy as depicted in twentieth-century films, in fact it’s most heinous. “Be excellent to each other and party on dudes” is as good a motto to live your life by as any. I just wish our real life future was based on this principle.