Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
6Apr/180

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)

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Bill S. Preston Esq. and Ted "Theodore" Logan are two articulate friends who love music and have the combined academic skill of a sunbathing sloth.  When a mysterious stranger approaches the two with a way to complete their history report, Bill and Ted go on an excellent adventure throughout time.  Stephen Herek directs Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, with the screenplay written by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, and stars Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves.

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (just Excellent Adventure moving forward) is the tightest comedy ever captured on film.  In this post-Apatow era of long-winded improv, Excellent Adventure's a remember how many laughs can be mined from a great script.  Every joke is a setup to another joke, like how Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) blow out their audio equipment in the opening scene to show how bad they are at playing and when they get the "good stuff" at the end they still sound horrible.  Then there's the running oral fixation of Sigmund Freud (Rod Loomis) whose gigantic corndog in the San Dimas mall never fails to get a laugh out of me.

The most important piece is Excellent Adventure's sincerity.  Despite the high concept plot, it's really just about two high school kids who want to be better than they are so that they can live out their dreams together.  That made this last go around, which I think is the 40+ time I've watched Excellent Adventure, hit my heart a bit harder than previous year's viewings.  I'm not successful yet, but Bill's maxim, "Be excellent to each other," is still an aspiration to live up to.

Clarence Clemons sparkles in a goosebump-inducing scene set in a future I want to live in.

Director Stephen Herek doesn't condescend to the sincere idea that music can and, in the universe of Excellent Adventure, will change the world.  The casting is crucial to this, as when Bill and Ted travel to the future and encounter three figureheads played by Clarence Clemons, Martha Davis, and Fee Waybill - all musicians.  Of the three, only Clemons (best known as the saxophonist for the E Street Band) gets dialogue, but says it with such conviction that when he leads the future ensemble into a prayer motion of guitar playing it becomes one of the best scenes in film history.  Watch it for yourself, listen to the soaring vocals of Robbie Rob's "In Time" as the denizens of the future come out to celebrate music, and consider a time when cinema imagined the future as a variety of musicians playing in peace.  It still gives me goosebumps.

Clemons' role ties into one of the things about Excellent Adventure that has aged very well.  When I started becoming more socially conscious about films I wondered why there weren't any black historical figures among Bill and Ted's ensemble.  Consider this - how good-natured a scene would it be to have Bill and Ted come crashing down on, say, Harriet Tubman and kidnap her? Your answer may vary, mine is, "Not at all."  Excellent Adventure wisely avoids that kind of faux pas, opting to instead show a future led by a black man and that their history class taught by the supremely patient Mr. Ryan (Bernie Casey).  I like the quietly emphasized idea that the patient teachers of today will be the perfect leaders for tomorrow, it shows change as ongoing instead of fixed by one event.

Which, to be fair, is the kind of observation that throws a wrench into my love of Excellent Adventure by having its heroes fail upward.  I don't buy that, and throughout Excellent Adventure the threat of Ted's failure to graduate pushes he and Bill forward on a studying binge that anyone who's fretted about any class ever will feel kinship with.  As much as I love Reeves' work, Winters grounds the material by playing Bill as the "smart" one of the two.  This leads to some hilarious moments where Winters is essentially his own straight man, flipping from utter seriousness ("You've got to have a poker face like me") to total enthusiasm ("Whoa, three aces!")

Screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon haven't hit as entertaining a high as they did with Excellent Adventure (though I'll entertain arguments about Men in Black) and part of why is how they deal with time travel.  Basically, they don't, and funnel all the circuitous logic associated with time travel fiction into dialogue that loops back around itself.  The introductory bit where Bill and Ted explain how they're going to become successful could be its own screenplay workshop.  Things happen in fiction because that's how they were written or performed, it's up to us in the audience to make sense of it.  Plus, it gives us delightful tongue twisters like, "Look, we know how you feel, we didn't believe it either when we were you when we us said what we us are saying right now."

The saga of Napoleon, jerk extraordinaire, is one of many examples how Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure gets its laughs then gets out of each scene.

Finally, the music.  By god the music.  Excellent Adventure's soundtrack is what convinced me to pick up a guitar (I'm better than Bill and Ted, but that's not saying much).  It's not the likes of Eddie Van Halen kicking off the film, but Sherine Abeyratne's tense vocals alongside the driving pump of Big Pig.  The lesser celebrated metalheads of the '80s play just as much a supporting role as Clemons or Casey, as I couldn't imagine the controlled insanity of Genghis Khan (Al Leong) suiting up in a sports store's finest without the Mozart-borrowing riff of Extreme's "Play with Me".

There's exactly one joke in Excellent Adventure that hasn't aged well, and even then I'll chalk it up to the teasing affection they treat one another with before jumping right back into their enthusiasm.  To the rest, Excellent Adventure is part of what feels like a dying breed of excellently scripted tight comedies.  Maybe they hit their peak with Excellent Adventure, or the later Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood.  In any case, when people tire of comedies with run-times the length of "serious" dramas, toss on Excellent Adventure and witness the comedic warmth of partying on.

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Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)

Directed by Stephen Herek.
Screenplay written by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon.
Starring Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves.

Posted by Andrew

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