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Strange Things are Afoot at NSD

We'll cut to the chase - as (dare I say) nerdy kids in the late 80s and early 90s, how could we not have seen the Bill & Ted movies? So, as the release of Bill & Ted Face the Music approaches, we've re-watched the original films and dove a bit into the alternate media adventures of our two favorite time-travelling San Dimans.


Bugsy: What were your thoughts on the on Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure this time around the Time Circuits? I was amazed at how nearly every line has been burned into my head, even though I haven't seen it nearly as many times as most movies I can recite from memory - it's just that quotable.

Andy: Between Marty McFly, Doctor Who, the Terminator, Captain Kirk, and our heroes of today Bill &Ted (as well as many many others), time travel was a big thing in that era. Indeed, we all know the boys and the girls were doing it. Aside from Back to the FutureBill & Ted was probably my favorite time-travel franchise. Surprising to say, like you Bugsy, I don't think I'd seen the movie in a good ten years and likely only a handful of times before that. Yet, I was also reciting the movie almost word for word under my breath while I introduced my kids to it. Is it just really good writing? Perfect delivery? Not only could I still quote it verbatim, my eight- and three-year-old boys were quoting it for days afterward. The house has been full of "Excellent!", "Dude!", and massive amounts of air guitar. 

If I were to have one complaint, it would be the use of one word, something I actually didn't remember even being in the movie. As a kid, I typically got to see movies like this after my family had recorded them off of television. Even if we'd originally rented it, we would usually just wait for Father Time to catch up and record a blockbuster as opposed to buying our own copy. Due to this, my memories have been modified from the original versions, formatted to fit my brain and edited for content. After thinking that Ted had died in a fall down some stairs, Bill was most pleased to find Ted alive. Reunited, the two embrace, but quickly pull away and question each other's sexuality. Had this movie been done today, they likely would have said "no-homo." It's a cheap and unfunny joke, and one of the few things that really stands out to me as dated in the movie.  I suppose one could point out the over-sexualization of Missy (I mean Mom) or the lack of minority historical figures (at least the future seems more expansive and diverse?), or the state of the San Dimas educational system. Not remembering the joke in question, though, really made it stick out to me. 

Complaining aside, the movie is simply just a ton of fun, and had me unable to walk away and excited to consume the related media. I took the deep dive through Bogus Journey, the entire ill-fated Live Action series, and as many episodes of the animated series as I could find. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find my copies of the comics. What is it that makes this movie (and franchise) still so engaging decades later to multiple generations? 

Bugsy: You know, the more I think about that scene, the more interesting it gets. That's probably the only time the boys exhibit what we'd call today "toxic masculinity." But even before that concept had really been developed, the movies feel like they're raging against it. Their dads embody it in very direct ways (the ultra-serious, no fun Police Chief and the "midlife adolescent" divorcee), and Ted's in particular seems as offended by the idea that his son has a friend as he is at Ted's poor academic performance. Friends, Toxic Masculinity tells us, aren't something adult men are supposed to have, and the best way Captain Logan can think to address this is to force Ted into an entirely regimented existence at Oates Alaskan Military School. Bill's dad is no better - without his trophy wife, he's a friendless sad sack openly leering at his ex. So, it's odd to see our heroes engage in, even for a moment,  the idea that men can't have close friends, and consequent need to openly state that they harbor no romantic feelings for each other - phrased as an insult, no less! It really stands out, even aside from the actual word. Interestingly, it feels entirely fitting that the Evil Robot Usses say the same thing in Bogus Journey, delighting in tormenting their quarry with a particularly viscous (and personal) barb before killing them. It's still weird to hear in a movie today, though, even coming out of these particularly bad robots.

A lot of the timelessness comes from the actors' natural chemistry, I think - they really do feel like best friends that would be fun to hang out with. Seeing them goof off in outtakes is something, they tend to mix up whether they're talking about themselves (the actors) or themselves (the characters). It feels so natural, you don't even question whether this, too, is a performance. And there's a lot hanging on them, it's quite impressive when you think of the sheer scope of their excellent adventures - I can't think of anything else that includes a metal-inspired future, time travel, Death personified as the classic Grim Reaper, Heaven, Hell... I'm not even going to get into Station. It never feels like tonal whiplash, though, we accept all the strangeness because we enjoy being around these two so much.

I think Excellent Adventure has probably aged the best, even in all its Hair Metal glory. (It's funny how much of the music B&T reference became painfully unhip by the time Bogus Journey came along.) You don't even notice how much simpler the movie is until you compare it to the sequel, but there's a definite indie/DIY feel to Excellent Adventure that feels incredibly welcoming from the suburban location shooting to the assembled (non-symphonic) metal soundtrack, to even the lo-fi sound of B&T's air guitar. It's not at all a surprise that the whole thing came out of a sketch the writer's had come up with in college. Most of all, though, it's a movie without a villain, which is still an extreme rarity in genre works. The guys have a problem, and, with a little help and a lot of imagination, they overcome it, all in their own way.

In a lot of ways Bogus Journey is a total 180 - it absolutely feels like a major studio movie, with an orchestral score and tons of sets. Even the air guitar sounds significantly slicker (although the trick of putting one on each speaker is definitely a treat with headphones). All of this dates the movie quite a bit, in a way that's kind of interesting - it's very much of a certain style in the 90s where live-action movies were being made almost like cartoons, with very flat lighting, bright colors, and off-kilter sets. Bogus Journey is from the "anything goes" era of Toys, Hook, Demolition Man, and the live-action versions of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Super Mario Bros. (which was co-written by one of the B&T creators, Ed Solomon!), and evokes an almost instant nostalgia for that very strange time.

There is one way that Bogus Journey has aged well, though, and that's in our protagonist's shift from 80s teenagers to early 90s mid-20s slackers - it was also the era of Wayne's World (at least on TV), and Nirvana's Nevermind was just around the corner. Youth culture had shifted from major label hair metal cheese into something more self-aware and influenced by more underground bands. After all, Megadeth were putting out records when Excellent Adventure came out, but by Bogus Journey, they were recognized enough to be mentioned in the film. If you keep an eye on the t-shirts, posters, and stickers, you can tell there was someone hip involved in set designs. Not only do B&T have a Bad Brains poster in their apartment (firing up my DC Punk Pride), there are also flyers for an anti-"Pay to Play" campaign - how cool is that? And, while I must admit a certain bias, this being very much the scene of my adult life adolescence, but I think that it's more accessible as youth culture goes. After Nirvana, old punk, metal, and indie records went back into print and are still being sold today. As for the music in the film, Primus and Faith No More still carry a certain amount of cred that Bon Jovi and Quiet Riot never had, even when Excellent Adventure was in theaters. What are some of the shifts you felt between the two movies?

 Andy: It still seems like it was not so far away that all of these things were actually hip. I think, for me at least, that may be one reason why Excellent Adventure (and the rest of the media) resonates so well. Bill and Ted aren't just lovable slackers, they're misunderstood misfits. Maybe they don't know who Noah's wife is, mispronounce Socrates, and think Caesar is a "salad dressing dude." It isn't that they don't care about those things (as evidenced by their adventures) it's that their dreams of Wyld Stallions' music are way more important to them. I think many of us can well relate to that: following a dream, even if most people think you're bad at it, and that you won't amount to anything in the history of Hill Valley San Dimas.   

Play with me for a minute, if you will, in the expanded Bill and Ted franchise. After the Excellent Adventure movie, our heroes had more excellent adventures in the form of an animated and a live action television series. I watched the entire Live Action series, and as much as I could find of the animated one, in preparation for this post. Only the first season of the animated version featured Winters and Keanu, but their replacements on the animated series carried over into the Live Action realm. The plot lines for these were much like their predecessor, although they were more frequently offensive. The duo will suffer a setback that threatens to separate them from each other (or their ability to continue playing with each other), they go back in time to solve it, learn a few lessons on the way, and continue on like nothing has changed. While these shows aren't as good, I think they capture the spirit of the original movie rather well. To me, though, Bogus Journey is a different thing altogether.

Don't get me wrong, I still very much enjoy Bogus Journey, but I think it suffers from a common problem in sequels.Too much here is going wrong. We start with the central problem: there is a Battle of the bands that Wyld Stallions must play in and win to get their music known, but they still don't really know how to play yet. Then a villain from the future wants to destroy it by sending hench-robots to stop B&T. That sets in motion several new challenges: their fiances/bandmates are now estranged from them, they become ghosts, they have to fight through Hell and defeat Death himself. It's like they're fighting several super-villains at once. We haven't even solved their main problem of not being able to play. These are Bogus Journeys indeed. I would have preferred to see them spend their travels in various time periods learning from the greats throughout history. It did give us an epic ending though and a fantastic ending song. I think in time, we may get something of a taste of the old excellent adventures in our next installment. Can it possibly live up to our fond memories?

Bugsy: In a way, I don't know if I want them to live up to memories. It's not something you really notice if you aren't intimately familiar with the films and watch in quick succession, but Bill and Ted do change between the movies - but in a very believable way. They really do feel like they're older and have seen a bit more of the world (or at least more of San Dimas), and I really appreciated that this time around. So I think I would prefer to see their older selves be, well... older selves who have lived their lives offscreen and developed as people - much like the rest of us have. I'd be concerned about their characterization in this strange era of "decades-later" sequels like Blade Runner 2049 and Rambo: Last Blood, but the fact that Face the Music will be written by B&T creators Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon does ease my fears somewhat.

Having said that, I do feel like Bogus Journey wrapped up their story nicely and showed just how they were able to get the whole world to hear their music, so I've never had a hankering for another chapter of the story. But maybe, as the world around seems more and more like a cheap knockoff of a grimdark dystopian story, we really need one more excellent adventure from two genuinely good dudes. After all, there's a reason I have a signboard that says "be excellent to each other" by my desk at work. Andy, what do you hope to see in Face the Music?

Andy: It might be dangerous to get everyone’s hopes up. Typically, I like to go into movies with low expectations. However, Kevin Smith's already got mine up from his comments at the recent movie Comic-Con panel. To him this movie “cracked the code.” What should cracking the code mean, though? The previews certainly throw a lot at you, with their daughters helping them by collecting famous musicians from history, their quest to write the perfect song, and alternate timelines. Aside from keeping the most bodacious writers, the series continues to have most triumphant casting and directing. Hopefully this will lead to an impactful, uplifting, and inspiring finale from our heroes.

What would I actually like to see? For starters, I can’t break away from wanting to see Bill and Ted actually play well - no bad guitar. It might also be good to hear some archival footage of Carlin, if it exists. At the very least, I think it would be nice to have someone break the fourth wall and let us all know everything will be okay, like Carlin did in the first movie. I think that's something we all need to hear right now. I’ve had enough of speculation though, and I anxiously await the movie release. 

Thank you Bugsy for once again joining me on this excellent adventure. It's true when they say that two heads are better than one. I’m glad I have you as the Bill to my Ted... Ted to my Bill? Shut up, Bugsy! I think all that is really left to say is: Be excellent to each other...

Bugsy: ... and party on, dude!

- A & B

("Party" to us sill means "old video games, Chinese takeout, and Diet Mountain Dew". Just like it always has.)

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