Maybe we should always not know what we're doing [Bill & Ted Face The Music Review]
A most bodacious journey through nostalgia, homophobia, music, Kid Cudi, death, rock & roll, and expectations. In other words, A Bill & Ted essay.
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The apocalypse feels passé. “Saving the world” is not all it’s cracked up to be, it seems. The ones we idolize now are proving themselves to be both too powerful and too fallible if we can even trust them. That, or they’re incredibly young, where their promise is continuously under threat by the pressure of expectation and performative grace. You’re perfect for the moment until you’re not.
In high school, we loved Kid Cudi because he was among the first to tap into a hum that everyone was feeling in 2009. A Kanye West prodigy, speaking of fallen heroes, that was a youthful, direct, and more relatable path on the ground that 808s & Heartbreak broke than what would be later popularized by Drake. The disparity between the opulent and proud attitudes of late 2000s and early 2010s pop mostly ignored but later utilizes the emergent emo movement stemming from popular alternative rock. Fall Out Boy, Paramore, and Panic! At The Disco were at their height by way of MySpace, and there wasn’t such a substantial distinction between alternative rock and pop music like there is today.
Cudi’s hum melodized a melancholic white noise everyone heard even if they didn’t realize it. It’s the hum of disappointment and disillusionment. It’s financial and aspirational collapse. When Y2K, 9/11, the Iraq War, and the advent of the Internet set the stage for your childhood and Green Day seems to be the only ones speaking up, it’s no wonder it feels now as though America’s in the midst of its highly anticipated third act.
You see, there’s always been this sort of pressure on Kid Cudi, a force I think a lot of millennials feel, dating back to the hype surrounding his debut Man on the Moon: The End of the Day. The album, a sci-fi journey in its own right, established an ambitious call-to-action and groundwork for geeky, lonely stoners like Cudi who, if briefly, existed in his own lane bridging the isolated MySpace emo with rappers who with such bravado were still shouting lyrics like “can’t wear skinny jeans cause my nuts don’t fit.”
The moment never really came for Cudi, even with all the hope and promise. At least not for a long while and after many projects that failed to enter the zeitgeist quite the same way. Feel free to go to bat for any of his albums in the comments, it’s a worthy conversation, but pop culture turned their backs. Along with a budding but tumultuous acting career, Cudi was ever-present in the 2010s, but so were the waves of depression and delight with each potential project. Catharsis would be found in the eventual reunion with Kanye West in the form of Kids See Ghosts, a concept album about best friends who go through a psychedelic journey through spacetime and the spirit world in quest of artistic fulfillment. I know it took me five paragraphs, but now we can get to Bill & Ted. Thank you for holding hands with my brain right now.
This brooding blend of trap-emo, pioneered by Cudi and Travis Scott and the like, is very effective at conveying the ominous, artificially mellowed vibe we live in right now. Juice Wrld died of an overdose in December 2019 at 21, but his posthumous album that dropped in July went to #1 on the Billboard charts.
Here’s Billie Eilish performing the happiest song she’s ever released at the Democratic National Convention. She’s not my cup of tea but unworthy of vitriol, so I apologize for my unkind words in the past. I think she strikes such an uncomfortably real nerve in me at the intersection of like, the opioid epidemic and societal expectation on young American women in a way not many older or more powerful figures than her feels like addressing in a meaningful way, so I suppose Billie Eilish will carry that weight on her eighteen-year-old shoulders. She does it gracefully enough, but it bums me out. Please remember to take your Xanax on the way to the polls this November, or after you put it in a mailbox and anxiously wonder if it’ll count. Wait, are you telling me the mental illness is coming from my brain?
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure has been an absolute fixture in my life, much like the rest of the Ready Player One-ish 80’s nostalgia canon. I dunno, I bought my Bill & Ted tee at Hot Topic in what, maybe 2013? It’s very old looking and faded, and right now, it has a sticky note on top of it folded with some other tees that reads “future tank tops.”
Last night I settled in to watch Excellent Adventure for the first time in several years, a dangerous game when so much comedy and “bro humor” has been unfavorably reevaluated in recent years. Both Excellent Adventure and Bogus Journey, both extremely 80s and 90s in their own right, actually stand up pretty well! I did have to reconcile by my count three uses of the f-slur quietly at home. Once in Excellent Adventure, when Bill thinks Ted got stabbed with a sword and when found to be alive, they hug it out and call each other “f*gs” in a playful no-homo kinda way. The other two times are in Bogus Journey where, in a plea for their lives to evil robot versions of themselves confess that they “love” the evil robots, and the evil robots call them f*gs and kill them anyway. There’s also an instance where they call Satan a “f*g” which is kinda just funny no matter which way you slice it.
Remember, ignorance is not the same thing as hatred. Is it homophobic? Yeah, kinda. Does it perpetuate homophobia? Not really, we’ll get to that in a bit.
You should watch the movies for yourself, especially again in preparation for the third film Bill & Ted Face The Music. I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed the latest installment as much had I not. They’re just goofy. They’re fun, kindhearted movies with an incredibly endearing cast, and it just felt good to laugh?
There’s this witch hunt that I understand about finding problematic stuff in our culture, and sometimes we find something meaty and productive, but right now, that’s mostly not the case. Take, for instance, this insane headline:
This ‘article’ is a take in response to a take in response to an interpretation of a 21-year-old movie. How deep down into the rabbit hole are we willing to go? What’s the point?
For a better recap of the first two films than I can provide, here’s one from YouTube veterans Red Letter Media:
About 23 minutes in, Red Letter Media host Mike Stokalas expresses his disappointment in the “Princess storyline,” a subplot that spans all three films where Bill & Ted court(?) and marry medieval princesses who later join their band Wyld Stallyns. Here Mike uses a self-coined term The Not-Gays which is a term I will be stealing and can be defined as:
“The Not-Gays is a theory created by Mike Stokalas in which filmmakers shove a pointless romantic love interest out of the needless fear the audience will otherwise think the protagonist is gay.
The princesses are not quite Distaff Counterparts in that Alvin and the Chipmunks vs. Chipettes sort of way, but the criticism stands. Thankfully I can report that the codependent relationship dynamic between Bill & Ted is addressed in therapy, and their wives are given more substantial roles, even if it’s a time-traveling side quest we don’t see. The cool thing about making your sequel 25 years after the previous one is that you can gain some perspective and can textually improve your characters. Bill & Ted are beacons of inept but fervent optimism and kindness. Their slogan is literally “Be Excellent To Each Other.” I prefer all of this effort to investigate the nuance, and the emo of it all than the more dismissive “can’t wear skinny jeans cause my nuts don’t fit.”
Face The Music was never going to be the most egregious extension of the franchise. That title belongs to the show that got Bill & Ted literally canceled in 2013.
Dang, it already happened.
Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights put on a Bill & Ted-themed show in both Hollywood and Orlando. Somehow, the show (at least in Hollywood) featured an unlicensed Superman who becomes gay after being sprinkled with fairy dust, much to the dismay of Bill & Ted. This six-year-old Guardian article was all I could find on the matter, but it’s pretty damn gross.
Listen, the Obama Administration was a different time.
Vice blogger Jamie Lee Curtis Taete was among the first to highlight the bizarre nature of the Halloween show, in which Bill and Ted embarked on a pop culture reference-ridden trip to the Land of Oz, with their return home dependent on killing four witches.
"Superman joins Bill and Ted on their witch-killing quest," wrote Taete in a highly critical review which has been cited as a major factor in the show's cancellation. "Bill and Ted are pretty psyched about that because, y'know, he's Superman and he's really useful to have on your side in a battle against evil witches. But then, uh oh, a witch accidentally sprinkles Superman with fairy dust, turning him gay.
"After becoming gay, Superman's voice and posture changes. His lips purse, his toes point inward, and his wrists become limp. His new voice sounds like a homophobic uncle doing a drunken impression of Richard Simmons, complete with lisps and frequent use of the word 'Faaaaaaabulous!'
"Bill and Ted, understandably, are bummed. Their initial excitement at having Superman with them on their quest turns to disappointment as, obviously, now that Superman is gay, he is not going to be of any use to them. Then, because Superman is now gay, he minces over to Bill and Ted, blows kisses at them, and slaps Ted on the ass. As he does this, Bill and Ted say 'Awwww dude!' with disgusted voices.
"After a few more attempts at molesting Bill and Ted, Superman ends up aboard the Starship Enterprise, where he runs into Superman villain General Zod. General Zod tells Superman to get on his knees. Because Superman is now gay, he assumes this is an invitation to give Zod oral sex. 'Finally!' he squeals."
A statement issued by the theme park said: "After thoughtful consideration, Universal Studios Hollywood has made the decision to discontinue production of the Halloween Horror Nights' 'Bill & Ted' show for the remainder of its limited run."
That’s perpetuating homophobia.
It should be underscored that I was extremely enthused by Bill & Ted Face The Music. I gave it four and a half out of five stars on Letterboxd. I think it was an impossible task to reboot a goofy faux-metal skater bro sci-fi franchise from the late 80s and early 90s for 2020. Unlike other new releases like The King of Staten Island and the upcoming Mulan or the unmentionable New Mutants, Bill & Ted Face The Music is currently out in theaters if you feel safe and available to outright own digitally for $25 day of release. This is the way to do it. Congrats Bill & Ted for being the new gold standard of modern movie viewing. I loved watching Excellent Adventure and (to be honest) 3/4ths of Bogus Journey last night. I loved, even more, waking up to a fresh pot of coffee, that final act of Bogus Journey, and a brand new sequel 29 years later. It hasn’t been that long a wait for me, not being 29 and all, but the film took impressive lengths to modernize it not just for nostalgia-brained millennial hipsters like me, but the Gen Z kids too.
Apart from the film centering around washed-up musicians Bill and Ted answering their prophetic call to finally write “the perfect song that will unite the world,” their daughters are their biggest fans, even bigger general music fans, and wish for them to succeed in this impossible endeavor too. So they also go on a rollicking time-travel adventure, picking up artists like Jimi Hendrix to contribute to the perfect Wyld Stallyns song, but realizing they’d need to recruit Louis Armstrong to get Jimi on board. The film credits mainly black artists and musicians who paved the way for the metalhead rock & roll we associate with such whiteness.
I go into more detail about this baton-passing nostalgic-fueled reboot trend in a paid-subscriber only piece here.
Kid Cudi is plucked from history along with Babe Ruth and Jesus Christ, but like Jesus and Babe, Cudi, for whatever reason, doesn’t get to sing or rap or even hum in Face The Music. He’s positioned as one of the few characters who understand the multi-dimensional circumstances of the plot, and he’s demoted to Wyld Stallyns hypeman. Here lies my harshest criticism of the film: the end credits.
It’s not just that the film ends with the triumphant, climactic song “Face The Music” in a movie I wouldn’t mind stretching beyond its tight 91-minute runtime. My issue is that, when we cut to black, we’re given a quarantine-reeked closing credit sequence compiled by iPhone videos of people’ jamming out,’ scored by jarringly different, corporate sounding alt-pop compared to the multi-century-spanning symphony we heard moments ago.
It felt tone-deaf to spend so much of the film drawing the lineage of black influence in rock, and even going so far as to induct someone like Kid Cudi into historical music canon (appropriately, especially in a film about rock!) by cutting to a bright pop song from the… Cold War Kids. It reeks of studio fuckery, and it’s disappointing. As if as soon as someone else was handed the aux cord for the movie, it all just goes staggering NBC and limp.
It’s only too fitting that the end credits roll with Weezer, a band who has quite literally spent the last twenty-five years trying to recapture 90s magic in a world that as moved way past it. In fairness, this new song “Beginning of the End” isn’t their worst late-career work. But Rivers buddy, we’re listening to Billie Eilish and Juice Wrld now while Weezer regurgitates tired formulas and trite gimmicks and even as one of their biggest ex-fans, I don’t know who it’s for anymore. Apart from perhaps a speed-dial-like-relationship with those in charge of studio fuckery.
My point being: listen to the kids, man. Always. This Kurt Cobain-sampled Kids See Ghosts song is the true evolution of rock & roll, a call for hope and adversity in the face of self-defeat and gloom. Something like this is how you’d logically end Bill & Ted Face The Music.
Big hopes for Kid Cudi’s Netflix series EnterGalactic set for release someday.
Strange things are afoot at the Circle K. Things feel less real because of how easily they can be questioned. There used to be that saying “there’s no such thing as a dumb question,” but then Twitter happened. When things like art are highly-anticipated and “long overdue,” artists like Cudi are pushed to a creative breaking point exasperated by cultural and Internet disdain for honesty and nuanced mental health discussion. It’s just sort of a bummer, you know? Like being told you’re gifted and destined for greatness, and then something like 2020 drags you through it. I’m often grateful I’m not famous, and the pressures now are indeed just in my head. You have eternity to be dead, so just wait.
Sleek, heavily treaded rock is exhausted, not dead, but it doesn’t have to be. It merely needs to embrace its roots, understand that music can indeed unite the world, but that doesn’t mean throwing a Lil Wayne feature on your irony-sanitized pop song about partying. It requires innovation, and while it was heartening to see an innovative approach to music history in Face The Music, it does fall short of really hitting it out of the park.
I’m told to look on the bright side of things, and there are many. An excellent sci-fi movie about rock music, death, time-travel, relationships, and a protagonist who eats hot Cheetos is a-ok in my book. It’s been playing a second time in the background now. It’s still hilarious. It feels good to laugh, even if that’s a feeling and feelings are gay.
Bill & Ted Face The Music is in select theaters and on-demand now.
Tyler Scruggs is a writer, musician, and millennial swashbuckler navigating the digital frontier through internet content like this and love songs for your Zune. He brews his own coffee now and doesn’t feel it’s safe enough to go to the movies as much as he might like.
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