Some time ago, I remember scrolling through Facebook (never a good idea), and I came across an image with a quote from pastor Andy Stanley: “Your greatest contribution to the kingdom of God may not be something you do but someone you raise,” it read. My immediate thought was, “Aw, cute, someone’s aunt posted another cheesy inspirational quote.” It seemed trite, but also probably true, and I was nodding along—until I read the comments, which in typical social media fashion were railing against the quote’s “sexism” and “misogyny.”
Which—I don’t know. I guess I can see that viewpoint, but the quote didn’t say anything about gender at all, and before I saw the angry comments it hadn’t even occurred to me that it might be aimed exclusively at women. Part of that, admittedly, may be my own idiosyncratic experience—for the last seven years I’ve been the stay-at-home parent in my household, raising two beautiful daughters while my wife pursues a career in “medical informatics,” whatever that is (for the record, I know what it is). Typically, I’ve been the one changing diapers, warming bottles, making lunches, chauffeuring kids around, attending parent-teacher conferences, and so on—and if all that sounds like a dig at my wife, perhaps that’s part of the problem. A household needs both wage-earners and caretakers—both input and output, if you want to put it crassly—and I don’t personally see how there’s any shame in being either one.We’re not, it turns out, a civilization of rock gods and their devotees; we’re all connected, and we all depend on each other.
And, well, not to put too fine a point on it, but the quote—for all its cheesiness—is just axiomatically true. Pick any towering figure from Scripture or hagiography (or, for that matter, history at large), and I guarantee you that that figure had significantly less-famous parents and/or caretakers. The traditional Christian calendar has multiple feasts honoring St. Joseph and the Virgin Mary—two figures whose biggest contribution was undoubtedly raising a child to adulthood—and not only them, either, but also Saints Anne and Joachim, the Blessed Virgin’s parents. Americans may like to think of themselves as autonomous individuals living in vacuums, but that’s not how Scripture or Christian tradition sees people, and it’s not how any casual observer of humanity would see things. We don’t spring into the world fully formed. We’re dependent on each other from the day we show up here, and we tend to leave the exact same way.
All that might sound a bit philosophical, or even morbid, for a write-up of the latest Bill and Ted movie, but Bill and Ted Face the Music turns out to be dripping with the weight of mortality, in a way that’s both vaguely alien to the slacker comedy series, but also entirely appropriate to a film about a pair of aging, would-be rock stars. There’s a bit of sincere darkness to balance out the goofiness this time, and the film is all the better for it—Bill and Ted is that rare trilogy that’s gotten better with each installment.
I’m not sure there’s a lot of point in recounting the events of previous Bill and Ted films, but for the sake of discussion, we might need to. In brief, the series tells the story of two aspiring rock gods who find out that their band and its hit song will eventually become the basis for all civilization. The first film, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, tells the now-iconic story of their quest to learn history via a phonebooth-shaped time machine in order to ensure their graduation from high school; after several failed attempts at a TV series no one asked for, the sequel, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, found the duo assassinated and fighting to return to the land of the living to record their hit song—because obviously what a franchise about time travel needed was a bunch of Ingmar Bergman jokes.
Bogus Journey, for all its charms, legitimately felt like an entry designed to blow up the franchise for good—and for nearly thirty years, it seemed as if it had. Screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon both went on to fairly unremarkable careers, working on films like A Goofy Movie and X-Men; Alex Winter, the actor behind Bill Preston, went onto a career in directing very strange movies; Keanu Reeves, the actor behind Ted Logan, went on to a career in being Keanu Reeves. It wasn’t until a few years ago that anyone suggested getting the band back together—so to speak.
But actually, the phrase “getting the band back together” seems oddly appropriate here, since Face the Music has all the same appeal as a great reunion album. The crew’s twenty-nine-year absence has not only made the proverbial heart grow fonder, but it’s also given them the opportunity to let their ideas age like fine wine, rather than run them into the ground. Face the Music finds the former wannabes in the same position most artists eventually do: having charted a hit early on, Bill and Ted have failed to follow it up with anything successful, and eventually faded into obscurity—a reality that parallels the career experiences of several of the auteurs involved here. It also proves to be a huge problem in the film, as their failure to write that world-changing song is resulting in anomalies in the time-space continuum.
Face the Music, then, finds the duo on a quest to “write” the universe-saving song—which they (obviously) do by time-traveling into the future in an attempt to steal it from the versions of themselves who have already written it. That plan is about as half-baked as it sounds, but fortunately this time around the two have a pair of marginally smarter daughters (named Billie and Thea, obviously), who spend the film’s runtime traveling through the past to form a supergroup of the greatest musicians from history, including Mozart, Louis Armstrong, and (obviously) Kid Cudi.
(Spoilers ahead.) Eventually, though, the clock counts down to minute zero (because even in a world where time travel is commonplace, you still can’t escape your fate). It’s time to play the universe-saving song, and the duo still hasn’t come up with a single note—and worse, while they’ve successfully acquired a flash drive containing an MP3 of the performance, it’s been snapped in half (because, reasons). It’s only then that the duo, staring at the names “PRESTON/LOGAN” Sharpied onto the drive, realizes that the artists behind the world-saving performance are not, in fact, Bill Preston and Ted Logan, but rather Thea Preston and Billie Logan.
The two women, then—both aspiring EDM DJs—fire up their equipment and lead an ensemble that includes literally everyone throughout time and space (long story), and play the world-saving song (thus proving once and for all that, whatever 1970s bumper stickers may have told you, disco does not, in fact, suck). The film ends with a voiceover from Billie and Thea, concluding that, “It wasn’t the song itself that saved the world—it was that everyone played it together.” We’re not, it turns out, a civilization of rock gods and their devotees; we’re all connected, and we all depend on each other.
There’s a sense in which this third-act twist probably contradicts the established canon from the earlier entries, but I personally have to admire a film that opts to tell the best story it can rather than sacrifice everything else on the altar of perpetuating its own Cinematic Universe™. More to the point, the concluding act of Face the Music is a fascinating repudiation of the rock-god narcissism that fueled the first two entries in the series. Excellent Adventure and Bogus Journey were of a very-specific pre-grunge moment when the music industry was fueled by the illusion that arena rock giants like Jon Bon Jovi and Eddie Van Halen were thundering, transcendent deities but also somehow just like you. “One song could change the world! And you could be the genius who writes it!” was the subtext of every rock album sales pitch. It was little more than a cynical repackaging and commodification of the sixties youth movement for a new generation, which goes a long way toward explaining Gen-X’s cynicism—but even if Adventure and Journey poked quite a bit of fun at this cultural milieu, they ultimately perpetuated it. Face the Music, though, turns it on its head in the way only middle-aged parents facing down their own mortality could.
Bill and Ted are eminently relatable characters because they’re the ones whom many of us fear—not without cause—we are. Of course they expected to change the world; what teenager doesn’t? For every Van Halen or Bon Jovi, though, there are literally thousands of aspiring world-changers—even extraordinarily talented ones!—who, for myriad reasons, never quite make it to international stardom. Face the Music finds the duo at the bottom of a trajectory that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Anvil! The Story of Anvil—or for that matter, anyone who’s experienced the disappointment endemic to life on planet earth. The existence of “great men” definitionally requires the existence of myriad mediocre men—and statistically, you’re far, far likelier to be the latter.
As am I.
While I was staying home with babies over the last few years, I took the opportunity to pursue a writing career, and as of this piece, I’ve published a couple of books (which you should definitely buy). Like Bill and Ted’s hit single, “Those Who Rock,” they’ve both gotten some attention but failed to set the world on fire. Maybe one of my future books will be the one to save civilization as we know it, but probably not. And yet, if I manage to raise a couple of kind, virtuous women, perhaps that will be enough. For most of us, that is as close to saving civilization as we get. And that’s okay.
Last night, I told the two of them about my plans to participate (for the first time) in National Novel Writing Month. (It’s an event where you’re supposed to bang out a draft of a novel in the month of November.) Both of them—now five and seven years old—were so excited by the idea that they immediately declared their intent to write books in November as well. In terms of the sheer odds, I doubt that any of our novels will become bestsellers, or change the world, or be studied by scholars for centuries to come.
But perhaps it won’t be the art itself that saves the world—it will be that everyone writes it together.
And perhaps that will be enough.