Bill & Ted: why they mattered, why they still matter

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Comedian and writer Bethany Black on how Bill & Ted have played a big part in her life – and why the pair still matter so much, over three decades after their debut.

‘Genius’ said a reply to a silly joke I’d just Tweeted making fun of a Buzzfeed article. ‘Sorry, If You’re Under 50 There’s NO WAY You’ve Heard Of These Popular Songs’.  Using that reasoning I’d figured they’d be shocked at anyone under 250 having heard of classical music.  The reply made my day.  Time travel, music, the word NO WAY in all caps, and being called a genius by Ed Solomon, the guy who’d co-written the Bill & Ted movies, it just felt perfect. I’m a stand-up comedian, so occasionally my jokes get retweeted by people who know people who know people who know my comedy heroes, and it never gets old.

‘These movies were such a big part of my childhood’ I’d tweeted in response to the announcement last year that there was going to be a third Bill & Ted movie, 29 years since they’d made Bogus Journey. I didn’t realise how big a part of my childhood they were until I saw the trailer for Bill & Ted Face The Music a few months ago, I’d deliberately avoided it and just seeing Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter on screen together gave me goosebumps.

So, I’m sat in my lounge about to re-watch Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure ahead of writing this and I panic.  I’ve not seen it in years, what if it’s terrible?  What if it’s aged so badly? What if none of the jokes work?  My girlfriend and I have been shielding since March and we’ve only got a tiny house so she’s either got to sit on the couch next to me whilst I watch this or she’s got to go to the bedroom. This has raised the stakes. If this goes wrong I’ll assume all responsibility for it in her eyes and I’m glad I’m wearing a hoodie big enough to hide in if it makes me want to cringe myself inside out.

I was an awkward kid, (it wouldn’t be until my 30s I realised I’m autistic) and spent my childhood either pretending I didn’t like things I did like, or pretending I did like things that I didn’t. But mostly trying to get access to things that other people said were cool that I either wasn’t allowed to watch, in the case of horror films, or that we couldn’t afford, in the case of anything that was on satellite TV.

My brother was a lot older than me, and his fiancée’s family did have access to satellite TV: her family sold potatoes to every chip shop and restaurant in the north west of England, so they were balls deep in spud money. They could afford anything. So she taped episodes of The Simpsons for me, this was the only way I could watch the show that was on every T-shirt and lunchbox in the country. My brother would bring the tapes over and on one occasion at the start of the summer holidays he picked up one tape too many and brought a video whose label had clearly been written by his fiancee’s youngest brother: it read ‘Bill and Teds exellunt adventuer’.

Over the next year I watched it so much it nearly destroyed the tape.

Our family didn’t get a video recorder until the mid-1990s but my dad was the head teacher at a primary school, so every weekend and during school holidays he’d bring the school’s VCR home. It meant I had from 7pm on a Friday until 7am on Monday morning to watch videos. I made perfect use of that time whenever I could. Videos would occasionally be rented from the shop on a Friday night, and if I enjoyed them, I’d watch them on repeat. This particular summer it was Bill & Ted.

Just everything about this movie spoke to me. It was fun, it was funny, it had lead characters I could relate to, and for some reason time travel stories always hit me right in the emotions. It also spoke to my delusions of grandeur that I suspect loads of kids have. I was convinced that I was born for a special purpose, like I was the protagonist in reality and that the things I would do would have universal repercussions, so the idea that a future society would be based on the teachings of Wyld Stallyns’ songs felt less like a pop at that idea and more like a roadmap to me. I would be a rock star.

I heard there was a sequel coming in the way you did back in the early 90s, through clips of the movie showing up in music videos. Due to the cost of reproducing film reels a movie would only be released in the US and UK at the same time if they knew they had a stinker, so I had to wait six months for Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, with only my sister’s boyfriend’s review: “better than the first one!”

“It’s never too late to work nine to five”.

Those words have echoed through my head so many times through my career as a stand-up comedian, and they’ve echoed through my head since I first heard them in the lyrics to ‘God Gave Rock ‘N’ Roll to You II’ at the end of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. At the time in the cinema they made me so overcome with emotion I remember crying. In the car on the way home I completely recounted the entire plot of the movie to my mum. A few months later I realised I was terrible with money and wasn’t going to be able to save up my paper round cash, so I sold my Gameboy, and bought an electric guitar. I even learned to play the thing.

These movies pushed me towards finding my people, my tribe, with my interests.

My best friend Dug is someone else who’d watched these movies over and over, and they were a shorthand in our friendship. Every year at a comedians’ Christmas party in Manchester we’d sing ‘God Gave Rock ‘N’ Roll To You II’ at Karaoke. Neither of our bands ever worked out for us, but I ended up performing stand-up comedy and so much of the attitude and humour from those movies informed who I became, the situations that I ended up in, that they became part of who I am as an artist.

I know there are times I should have given up and got a proper job rather than continuing to try to crack the showbiz nut, but there was still time. The clock in San Dimas keeps running, but it’s never too late to work nine to five, right?

Back to now. I press play and the opening music and titles from Excellent Adventure take my breath away with a wave of nostalgia… and… it’s great! Watching it as a 41 year-old I’m as taken with it as I was watching it as an 11 year old. It’s such a joyous film absolutely devoid of cynicism. They’re supposed to be a couple of daft teenagers, who don’t have a bad bone in their body. Their lack of understanding never translates into meanness, and they obviously care a great deal for each other. Bill’s tears when he thinks Ted is dead and his anger at the perpetrator is so real, that even the homophobic slur they call each other when they hug upon realising they’re not dead – as awful as it is – loses some of its sting. Simply because it encapsulates what homophobia really is and where it comes from; fear of their own vulnerability, fear of letting their guard down and fear of telling their best friend ‘I love you’.

That aside, the film holds up spectacularly well and not just for me because it contains an old time-y bar fight (of which we need more in films!) The jokes are great and work on so many different levels. There are jokes I obviously didn’t get as a kid, and ones that seemed old and kind of corny “who’s Joan of Arc?” the teacher asks. “Noah’s wife?” comes the reply, and it is an old corny gag, but it works perfectly for the character.

The whole first movie is written like it’s episodic too which I love, the nods to Doctor Who go beyond the phone box and the time circuits, in the first half you seem to be never more than five minutes away from a cliffhanger.  The Boot Strap Paradox that plays out at the end as a way to get them out of trouble works so perfectly too in a film that answers much bigger questions about life.

Watching both films it becomes clear it’s about having and losing potential, about living up to your parents’ expectations for you whilst trying to become your own person. On a deep level, as someone who’s spent most of their life trying to come to terms with their ADHD, it connected. Ted telling himself to remember to wind his watch because he already knew he didn’t but hoped that it’d work this time. “You could have achieved so much if you’d just put your mind to it!” is something I’ve heard and told myself every day of my life and the truth is, I did put my mind to it and I did achieve so much. I’m sat here at the age of 41 looking at my life and wondering why I never ‘made it’ and then my girlfriend points out I’ve actually achieved everything I dreamed of. I’ve been in Doctor Who and played Glastonbury!

But you get older and the silly dreams of your teenage years meet reality, and I’d not watched either film since that happened. But I still knew every line. It was most excellent.

I watched the trailer for Bill & Ted Face The Music and I understood the worry some people have about remakes for the first time. That was when I realised how much impact the films had on me.  This movie could have the potential to ‘ruin my childhood’ not because it was a remake, but because it was by the people who’d made the originals, starring the people from the originals. The clock in San Dimas has kept ticking and the potential might have been lost. If so, do I have to give up? What if it is time to work nine to five, or worse: too late? What if they were wrong?

Then I watched the film.

Very mild spoilers for Bill & Ted Face The Music lie ahead.

It currently exists in a quantum state: it’s simultaneously the best film I’ve ever seen, the worst film I’ve ever seen and every film between. Schrödinger’s Bill and Ted.

The 1990’s Orion Pictures sting at the top and the thumping of the synth bass of ‘Lost in Time’ by Big Black Delta feels like it mirrors not only Big Pig’s ‘I Can’t Break Away’ which opened Excellent Adventure, but also “In Time” by Robbie Robb which plays when they arrive in the future.

I get tingles, but I don’t relax.

I love that for movies about time travel they just don’t bother with keeping the timeline strict. The first movie is set in 1989, the second is apparently two years later in 1991, and this one we’re told is 25 years later in 2020. But all this is okay because at various points in this I’m immediately every age I was when anything Bill & Ted related occurred to me.

I’m unsure at first, because like watching the HD versions of Star Trek TNG, seeing the difference in age between the actors then and now, having grown up with them, it feels like a reminder of my own mortality. If nothing else this film will end the conspiracy theory that Keanu Reeves is an immortal who hasn’t aged.

The characters may be 30 years older, but they’re still the positive goofs they were in 1989. They never stopped believing in themselves, nor their daughters whose movie this is just as much as it’s Bill & Ted’s. The philosophical message that was there from the beginning is still there in this, and it’s only as things start going wrong and they see the various embittered versions of their future selves that we really see who they could become if they lose that ambition and sense of purpose.

It becomes an exercise in self-reflection, it’s Bill & Ted Go To Therapy as much as anything. They see the dark side of who they could be, and with that we see more of Ted’s Dad coming through, the voice of authority, the literal cop of these movies. When they get told by their older selves “you’re losers because you make bad choices” it hurts. It’s the sort of negative self-talk we can all fall into, but the guys don’t just accept it and wallow, they continue their quest.

One of the most profound statements, from the guy who told Socrates “all we are is dust in the wind” and who told St Peter the meaning of life was the lyrics to ‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn’, is when he apologises to his self, saying “I feel like I never really knew you, Ted.” Replying “That’s my fault, I never truly opened myself up to you.”

Because in the end, we have to care for ourselves in the way we would like our parents to have done.

That’s what the film feels like. Making amends, to our parents, to our children, and trying to pass on a better world than the one we inherited, because our parents don’t have all the answers, they never did. They were often loveable goofs who’d been damaged by the expectations they grew up with.

I won’t act like I didn’t find myself moved to tears several times throughout this movie, and not just because as I said earlier I find time travel movies oddly touching. But because this is about the fundamental inter-connectedness of the universe and how the choices we make affect not only us but everyone around us, and sometimes the most fundamental thing we can do to try to unite the world is to pass on unconditional encouragement to those who need it.

Because in the end, all we are is dust in the wind, dude.


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