We are living in heinous times. Strange things are afoot in every direction. Bogus fiends stalk the corridors of power. A virus spreads through the air. The Arctic is burning. It’s easy to feel pessimistic about the future right now, but if movies have taught us anything it’s that whenever the balance of the universe is threatened a hero will emerge – or sometimes a couple of heroes. If anyone is equipped to defeat the cynicism of this most egregious year it’s the pure-of-heart Bill and Ted, who return to cinemas this week in Bill & Ted Face The Music.
From the moment lovable slackers Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan first air-guitared their way into our hearts in 1989’s time-hopping cult hit Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the pair have embodied a spirit of pure, unwavering optimism that’s carried them through every seemingly insurmountable crisis. Even when they were thrown to their deaths by “evil robot us’s” in 1991 sequel Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey they greeted their mortal end with stoicism. Taking their cue from Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 existential classic The Seventh Seal, in which a knight challenges Death to a game of chess, they set about defeating the Grim Reaper at Battleship, Cluedo, Electric Football and then – finally and definitively – at Twister. By the end of their Bogus Journey through the afterlife Bill and Ted were resurrected and victorious, ushering in a new era of world peace with their band Wyld Stallyns. Death himself played bass.
For Alex Winter, who plays Bill, that seemed like the natural end of his and co-star Keanu Reeves’ excellent adventuring. Winter retired from acting in 1993 to focus on documentary filmmaking, but says his interest was piqued by the story Bill & Ted creators Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson pitched to their two leads. “Keanu and I had no intention of making a third Bill & Ted movie,” Winter says. “The thing that hooked us back was the idea that we could expand on these guys in an interesting way. We’re coming back to them 25-30 years later, and they’re not bros who are in a stunted adolescence. They are adults with wives and daughters who they love, but things have not worked out exactly the way they thought they would when they were young.”
In Face The Music, Bill and Ted are washed-up has-beens who know the last of their dwindling fanbase by name. They have failed to write the song that would unite the universe, and now time and space are collapsing as they near the ultimate deadline. While their daughters Billie (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and Thea (Samara Weaving) set about putting together their dream band from throughout history (First stop: Jimi Hendrix), Bill and Ted themselves leap forward in time in the hope that future versions of themselves have actually gotten around to writing that all-important tune. “The thing that was inspiring for me to come back to was the fun of playing different versions of Bill at different ages and in very, very different places in his life,” says Winter. “There was, for me, great comic potential in the idea of playing myself as a convict, or as a drunken lout.”
Seeing Winter and Reeves bring these warped, refracted Bill and Teds to life from beneath layers of heavy prosthetics is indeed hysterical, but as ever with Bill and Ted there’s something profound going on beneath the surface silliness. By stepping outside of time, our heroes are able to see the arc of their lives more clearly. “I think Chris and Ed did that very intentionally,” says Winter. “They were looking to use time to expand the existential dilemma that Bill and Ted are in at middle age so they can look at that very concretely from different perspectives.” He adds, however, that they never let the heavy stuff weigh them down. “We try not to wear it on our sleeve,” he says. “I wouldn’t be coy and say that we don’t try to play with some grandiose ideas, but we don’t think of the films as vegetables or medicine. They’re really there for you to have a good time and put a smile on your face.”
As well as the script, the other thing that convinced Winter to return to acting was the chance to renew his partnership with Reeves. Bill and Ted are truly symbiotic characters, and over the course of all three films the only time they’re separated is, fittingly, when they’re in hell. Like Station, the Martian scientist from Bogus Journey who can split into two alien beings, they’re really one. Their co-dependence is taken to hilarious extremes in Face The Music when they arrange joint couples therapy with their disconcerted wives (“We’re a couple of couples, right?” says Bill, obliviously). Winter uses a musical analogy to explain his relationship with Reeves. “I think it’s very similar to being in a band,” he says. “I suck as a musician, so I’m not trying to elevate myself, especially given I’m speaking to NME! That being said, we both play bass. When you’re a rhythm section, it’s really all about how you work with the drums, right? If you’re not in a groove it’s just gonna be horrible. If you are, you can go to some really beautiful places. Reeves and I just play well together, so that makes performing these characters as sort of one person broken into two kind of effortless.”
While Reeves went on from Bill & Ted to become one of the most recognisable movie stars on the planet, Winter has spent most of his career behind the camera. Even back in 1989 when they were shooting the first Bill & Ted, he was already building a parallel career as a director of music videos. That same year he and his directing partner Tom Stern shot Red Hot Chili Peppers videos for ‘Knock Me Down’ and ‘Taste The Pain’, while the following year he was behind Ice Cube’s debut solo video for ‘Who’s the Mack?’. Cube told NME recently that he stills remember the exact reason he hired Winter: he’d seen a trailer for Winter’s MTV sketch show The Idiot Box in which a handcuffed Winter is being dragged away by men in suits, all the while still desperately trying to promote his show. “When I saw that I was like: ‘This dude is funny, man!’” Cube said. “He got the sensibility straight away. He’s a great director. We hit it off and then he was like: ‘Yeah, I did this movie Bill & Ted’. I was like: ‘Damn, that was you!’”
Having also made a short film with US rock band Butthole Surfers and directed videos for acts as diverse as P-Funk bassist Bootsy Collins and Aussie experimentalists Foetus, the last music video Winter shot was for New York alt-metal band Helmet – live at the Astoria 2 in London. Things ended bloodily. “I was in the front of the theatre with a Bolex [camera] and someone stage-dived and kicked me square in the face and drove the camera right into my face,” he says, with what sounds like a wince. “It just broke my nose open like a hot dog. That’s legitimate guerrilla filmmaking! It’s also very stupid.”
These days he’s established himself as a rather more highbrow documentary maker, and in November he’s set to release his long-awaited documentary about experimental music icon Frank Zappa. Fortunately that didn’t require him to return to the mosh pit. “It’s a lot more noodling in the studio,” he notes. His other films have seen him dive into the world of tech, taking on subjects like the rise of illegal downloading in 2012’s Downloaded and the underbelly of the Internet in 2015’s Deep Web: The Untold Story of Bitcoin and the Silk Road. I ask him if his research has made him fear the way social media algorithms are already rewiring our puny human brains – and if that represents the true victory of the evil robot us’s. “I’m inclined to agree,” he says with a laugh. “It’s like [Bogus Journey villain] De Nomolos, making the world just a little bit worse.”
Bill & Ted Face The Music, on the other hand, might just make the world a little bit better. Winter suggests we could all do with being a bit more Bill and Ted. “To play Bill, I have to find the more joyful, open-hearted, innocent side of my nature,” he explains. “That’s a pretty lovely world to inhabit. You have to find that place within yourself and then you get to stay there and see the world that way.”
It’s from that place of joy and openness that their famous credo springs, as good a golden rule as any religion has ever come up with. It is most outstanding to have Bill and Ted back in 2020, reminding us once more to be excellent to each other.
‘Bill & Ted Face the Music’, starring Alex Winter, is in cinemas now