The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Quick Takes: Bill and Ted: What the Herek?

Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer

A recent rewatching of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure still satisfies — but why the hell is it still Stephen Herek’s best movie?

ImageMidway through Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, our two heroes — played with utter joy by Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter — pull the classic Warner Brothers’ cartoon shenanigan of sneaking into a medieval castle by hiding in suits of armor. After successfully ducking the guards, they then lurch deeper into the castle (where babes await) weighed down by the heavy metal — which prompts one of the two future uber-rockers to quip, “Hey, heavy metal!” And then, despite their discomfort, they share their own version of a secret handshake: a quick, finger-dancing riff on an air guitar.

It’s a simple scene; no great addition to the canon of physical comedy — but this moment and the entire damn movie are suffused with such joy that it made me wonder: Why couldn’t director Stephen Herek pull this off in Mr. Holland’s Opus?

Let me make this perfectly clear: I really wasn’t expecting to like Bill and Ted as much on rewatching it. I hadn’t seen it since I was a kid, and we all know how that works. True, I still drew the occasional laugh track at a party by shouting, “San Dimas High School football rules!,” but I figured that rewatching Bill and Ted would give me the same queasy, I-was-an-idiot-when-I-was-a-kid feeling that I get when rewatching, say, Robotech or Voltron or many other childhood faves. (Though now that I think of it – I never laughed at You Can’t Do That on Television.)

But Bill and Ted still rocks, and it rocks in that remarkable way that so many guilty pleasure movies rock (The Last Starfighter and Krull spring to mind, though I place Bill and Ted above Krull but below The Last Starfighter): it rocks because it’s better than it has any right to be, and it achieves this by starting and ending in a place of love and joy. Adherents of the famed Second City school of comedy and improvisation swear by this code, which derives humor from agreement and happiness, not dischord. This isn’t to say that the best Second City skits have no conflict – no great storyteller can survive without it – but it does mean that the age-old improv rule of always saying yes holds true for Second City – and it holds true for Bill and Ted.

Case in point: on their journey through time to shanghai historical figures to help with their history assignment, Bill and Ted snatch Billy the Kid, narrowly escaping with him to the middle ages, where they traipse off to a nearby castle – leaving the Old West desperado alone with their precious time machine. Keep in mind that I hadn’t seen this movie since I was a kid, so I remembered virtually none of its plot, and when they left Billy alone with the machine, every storytelling instinct inside me felt sure that Billy was going to steal the machine – and the thought wearied me.

Why, though? Why should a writer and storyteller like me feel weary at the prospect of some good conflict? The movie had lacked any real villain – Ted’s domineering father hardly counts – and a minor subplot involving Bill, Ted and maybe Rufus chasing down Billy the Kid could have bulked up an admittedly brief second act. Hell, maybe we could have spent more time with some of the historical figures, most of whom only get a brief snatching scene in their time periods. (Though Napoleon does get a decent scene on a battlefield that made me think of MST3K‘s Crow and Tom Servo yelling, “Stock footage awaaaay!)

But it would have been the wrong choice. It would have added a lot of unecessary venom to a movie that is resolutely about happiness. Bill’s and Ted’s only weapons are their good hearts, and it’s far more satisfying to see them win over all these great historical figures than fight them. More great details like this fill the movie – the most obvious being the history dudes’ enthusiastic performances at Bill and Ted’s crucial final history presentation – but one stands out for what it doesn’t show:

So our heroes lure Ghengis Khan into the time machine using a Twinkie, right? Then it cuts to the White House, 1863, where Khan himself grabs Abraham Lincoln. That means that in the time between when they grabbed Ghengis Khan and arrived in 1860s America, Bill and Ted had already won over one of the most brutal warriors in world history to their cause.

This idea, that Bill and Ted can win anyone over with their airheaded Valley dude charms, ties in nicely with the movie’s coda (“Be excellent to each other, and party on, dudes!”) and the movie’s theme – that a good heart can conquer anything.

The filmmakers take this theme to a wonderfully goofball extreme with their story engine: Apparently Bill and Ted’s music, band and entire philosophy (the aforementioned coda) turn the world into a groovy utopia by 2688, which is why the rulers of the future utopia must ensure that Bill and Ted nail their final history assignment. If they don’t, Ted’s father will send his son to military school, and the future utopia will never be. Now, clearly, that’s a pretty goofy choice – and perfect for this movie, because why else would these two goofballs need to go through time unless the stakes were so astonishingly high?

But for whatever reason, Herek’s storytelling instincts were so in tune, that he completely slam-dunks the most-easy-to-fuck-up scene in the movie: Bill and Ted’s brief visit to the very utopian future they inadvertently bring about.

Before I analyze why that scene works so well, let me touch upon Mr. Holland’s Opus. It’s widely regarded as Herek’s best movie (I guess), and along with Dead Poet’s Society is the closest we’ll ever get to putting someone into a diabetic coma with celluloid. Just kidding. But here’s what I’m getting at: A writer or director should love telling their stories so much that they can’t help but make them unpredictable – and when I call a story unpredictable, I’m not saying it has to be filled with plot points I don’t see coming – that’s fine – but I enjoy it even more when a movie makes a choice I don’t see coming, when it imbues a scene or a storyline or a moment or a character with a vibe, flavor or energy I hadn’t expected. Herek never accomplishes that feat in Mr. Holland’s Opus, but he pulls it off with great skill and verve in Bill and Ted. 

Now let’s talk about Bill and Ted’s visit to their utopian future. So they get there, and three rulers – credited as “The Three Most Important People In The World” – greet them with the very gesture Bill and Ted perfected: a riff on an air guitar, which by 2688 has become the earthly equivalent of the splay-fingered Vulcan salute, but instead of “live long and prosper,” it stands for “be excellent to each other.” A few score utopians enter the monolithic room and share the gesture with Bill and Ted. All of this happens with a gooshy 80s power ballad playing in the background.

This scene would have been easy to fuck up. It would have been easy to have the citizens of the utopian future treat Bill and Ted like rock stars, cheering and mobbing them and carrying them over their shoulders.

It also would have been easy to have the utopians treat Bill and Ted like gods – kowtowing and groveling and asking for their blessing.

But Herek and company somehow made the just-right choice. The utopians treat Bill and Ted with deep, Buddhist-y love and respect, and part of me – the part that reads too much into movies like this; the part of me that can write 2,000 words about movies like this – suspects that the utopians know that Bill and Ted are complete goofballs – and that’s a good thing, maybe a great thing. When Bill says something stupid, the utopians laugh. When Ted says they have to leave because they’re “working on a history project, not a future project,” The Three Most Important People In The World gently smile, confident that these two goofs are about to wreak benevolent havoc on the timeline.

And despite all this, the utopians still revere Bill and Ted for their good-hearted simplicity. Let’s watch this scene right now:

Listen, I readily concede that I’m a sucker for gooshy 80s power ballads, but I maintain that Herek, intentionally or no, made a pretty great movie in Bill and Ted, and he did it by pouring more love into the movie than the script probably warranted.

And I’m glad he did.