What is the purpose of a sequel? There is an easy commercial answer, of course: to make money. On a creative level, what is its ultimate purpose? To say it is to revisit popular characters and settings does not quite cover it. To push the stories further along? To provide more of the same? Ultimately I think the sequel’s purpose is this: to allow an audience to experience the thrill of watching the original film again.
You can never go back. As a viewer the rush of seeing a Star Destroyer in Star Wars loom endlessly over Tatooine only happens once. The greatest thrill of seeing Rocky Balboa last the distance against Apollo Creed occurs the first time, and then it is never quite the same again. To recapture that same feeling, the only chance is to revisit the characters and settings and play out a greater thriller, or a surprising change in how it happens. The Empire Strikes Back cannot replicate the excitement of seeing a light sabre duel, so it ups the ante: it presents a longer, more desperate and action packed fight – and then tops it by severing a hand and dropping the mother of all plot revelations. It is a difficult trick to play out, and that difficulty is evidenced by just how few sequels actually improve on their predecessors. The Empire Strikes Back is generally regarded as one, and The Godfather Part II as another. I would argue that Pixar’s Toy Story series is a remarkable feat in upping the ante not once but three times: Toy Story 4 is better than 3, which is better than 2, which is better than the original. Beyond that? It is hard to point to too many genuine contenders. From Russia with Love? Fast & Furious? Much more common are sequels like The Matrix Reloaded, which is certainly bigger and more ambitious than the original film, but fails to be better. Making good sequels is an ever harder task when it comes to comedy: good jokes are based around characters, and the best jokes are almost certainly worn out by the end of the first film. Is Legally Blonde 2 better? Is Beverly Hills Cop 2? Is Bad Santa 2?
So: Bill & Ted Face the Music. It is the latest in a seemingly ongoing string of hugely belated movie sequels, in which a decades-old Hollywood hit suddenly receives a sequel with much older actors attempting to recapture the wonder and appeal of the original work. It is a phenomenon borne out of both nostalgia and the massively expanded availability of old movies in a post-DVD, post-streaming world. It used to be that if a studio waited too long on producing a sequel, no one out in the market would sufficiently remember the original. Now films from the 1980s and beyond discover new audiences and fans all of the time. It is what has enabled the likes of the fourth Rambo (20 years after the third), Wall Street 2 (22 years), Tron: Legacy (28 years), Blade Runner 2049 (35 years), and many others. It is the effect that is enabling Disney’s current sequel bonanza, with their recent announcements of Hocus Pocus 2, Sister Act 3, and Indiana Jones 5.
It is what has enabled the release of Bill & Ted Face the Music, the third film in its series. There was a gap of two years between the original comedy, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and its sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. Between Bogus Journey and Face the Music there has been a wait of 29 years. For star Keanu Reeves, that is a gap as big as My Own Private Idaho, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Much Ado About Nothing, Little Buddha, Speed, Johnny Mnemonic, Chain Reaction, The Devil’s Advocate, The Matrix, The Gift, Hardball, The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions, Constantine, A Scanner Darkly, The Day the Earth Stood Still, 47 Ronin, The Neon Demon, Toy Story 4, and all three John Wicks to date. And it’s a comedy, a genre that – for all the best effort in the world – is not exactly reknowned for its sequels.
What a surprise: Bill & Ted Face the Music is not simply good, but great. It is not simply a worthy sequel, it is that mythical beast: the comedy sequel that surpasses the original. It does not just provide the viewer with a nostalgic hit, and a level of enjoyment that matches that first 1989 production, it does a better job in every respect. It begins with the warm glow of visiting old friends, and it concludes on an emotional high so well earned and authentic that it brings a tear to the eye. With 2020 being the bleak and challenging ordeal that it is, Face the Music may not be the film audiences thought we wanted – but it is without question a film that we desperately needed.
Face the Music picks up on Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) decades after their previous two adventures: still living in San Demas, California, still trying to recapture the rock glory that they were promised would unite the whole of humanity. They each have a daughter – Thea (Samara Weaving) and Billie (Brigette Lundy-Paine) – who are following them cluelessly into a live of rock and metal music fandom. When Bill and Ted are once again visited by a future time traveller they discover the whole of time and space is on the verge of collapse, and that they have less than two hours to compose and perform their universe-uniting song before reality ceases to exist.
There is a knockout narrative structure to Face the Music that splits its four protagonists into pairs and sets them off on diverging paths for the bulk of the film. For Bill and Ted, writing the greatest song of all time is a harder task than simply using a time machine to jump ahead and steal it from themselves. For Billie and Thea it means hijacking a time machine of their own and travelling through history for backing musicians. The former is a joy: enabling Reeves and Winter to play a succession of older and older Bills and Teds in a range of contexts. The latter is a smart re-working of the original Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure – two teen slackers getting into trouble throughout history. Throw in a killer robot, a range of returning characters, and a pitch-perfect climax, and you have the tightest structure of all three movies.
Director Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest) delivers a great sense of comic timing and a breackneck pace that ensures the film never gets bogged down or unnecesarily slowed-down. Winter and Reeves are clearly having an absolute ball playing different versions of themselves, while Lundy-Paine and Weaving immediately endear themselves as fresh iterations of their characters’ fathers. The late George Carlin, who co-starred in the earlier films, is appropriately acknowledged and replaced. It feels reasonably safe to say that any fan of Excellent Adventure and Bogus Journey will be right at home here.
This is exactly what sequels are for. It brings back something loved, adjusts it for a now-older market, and then finds new and refreshing things to do. Old elements are remixed to be made new, and are then enhanced with genuinely original elements. Humour varies from one person to another; for me this just pips ahead of Eurovision as 2020’s best comedy. It is surprisingly close to being my favourite film of any genre for the year.
There is a wonderful sense of closure presented here: a promise made by the story all the way back in the original film that the viewer finally gets to see play out. It is not simply an opportunity for those watching to revisit some beloved characters – it is a chance to see their story finally reach its climax. Parisot demonstrated back in his superb Star Trek satire Galaxy Quest that he knew exactly how to pitch nostalgia to an audience, and he absolutely nails it here. I went into Face the Music hoping for a film that would live up to its cult-favourite predecessors. I did not expect a film that would, in every respect, exceed them.