Director: Pete Hewitt
Writer: Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, William Sadler, Joss Ackland, Pam Grier and George Carlin
Index: The First Thirty.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is one of my favourite movies. It holds an underlying truth even though it’s utterly ridiculous throughout and it’s pure unadulterated fun. I’ve gone back to it often since the eighties and it always hits the spot for me.
When I put together the list of Pam Grier’s First Thirty, I was surprised to find that a) she was even in that film’s sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, as I had zero recollection of her in it and b) that I haven’t gone back to it once since it came out. I was suddenly very worried about how it would hold up, not least because the much delayed third film in the series, Bill & Ted Face the Music, is truly awful, however amazing Brigette Lundy-Paine was as Ted’s daughter.
What I found was that it’s very much stuck between the two, not a patch on the original but much better than the third. It’s a triumph of the imagination, with most praise going to the writers, Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon, as they deconstruct and reconstruct not just the Bill & Ted mythos but cinematic history with The Seventh Seal a particularly key template.
They ratchet up the silliness even further and most of the best bits work simply because they went there, wherever there is from a list of “wouldn’t it be cool if” moments that I’d be shocked weren’t generated using recreational drugs. Eventually, however, the sheer weight of its cleverness prompts it to collapse in on itself, so I’m unlikely to go back to it again any time soon, but I’m happy to have acquired fresh memories of this bit and that one and especially the other bit over there.
For anyone who doesn’t know this trilogy, the idea is that the music of a pair of slacker nobodies in San Dimas, California, namely Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan, is destined to turn the world into a utopia. The catch is that their band, Wyld Stallyns, sucks, because neither of them know how to play and they can’t be bothered to learn. So how does a band save the world with that attitude?
Film one saw a positive interruption to their lives when Rufus arrives in his phone box time machine to help them pass a history class. The ramifications of failure to them just mean Ted being sent to military school but to Rufus the eradication of his utopian future. So they whiz through time collecting historical figures for their class presentation, from Socrates to Joan of Arc via Genghis Khan.
Film two sees a negative interruption, with a future terrorist, Chuck De Nomolos stealing a phone box time machine to send evil robot replicas of Bill & Ted back to San Dimas to kill the real ones and purge his future of what he sees as needless frivolity. The first neat touch of many is that they quickly succeed. First, however, we meet Pam Grier, as Ms. Wardroe, the organiser of a Battle of the Bands at the San Dimas Civic Auditorium. She allows Wyld Stallyns to compete even though they’re awful. “Prepare a little,” she suggests and then vanishes from the movie until the finalé.
The point, of course, is that this is another crucial moment in time. Wyld Stallyns have to win this Battle of the Bands, but everything is against them, from their lack of discipline and talent to Evil Bill & Ted literally hurling them off a cliff to their deaths twenty-five minutes into the film.
It’s here that the real imagination kicks in, because of course the movie doesn’t end then. They wake up dead to be faced with the Grim Reaper, but escape by giving him a wedgie. “I can’t believe we just melvined Death!”
However, they’re sucked down to their own personal Hells until they realise that the only way to end it is to play Death at a game. Even if you haven’t seen The Seventh Seal (in which case, remedy that as soon as possible), you’re aware of the knight playing chess with Death to stay alive. Now apply that to Bill & Ted and we find our heroes triumphant over the Grim Reaper at Battleships, Clue and Twister. And so they will live again.
However, they still need help, so the Grim Reaper takes them to Heaven, where we spend more time recognising background characters than following the plot. It was at this point that I realised how much I was enjoying this but also how problematic it all was.
So many of the moments are wonderful and I adored that they just kept on happening in ways that most filmmakers wouldn’t have the balls to do, something that extends to how the film was cast. Placing Jim Martin of Faith No More alongside Johann Sebastian Bach is just genius, as is having Taj Mahal play St. Peter.
However, the broader story linking all those moments is skimpy and stupid and missing all the charm that saved the first picture. In that film, it was all about Bill & Ted. In this one, too much of it isn’t and every scene without them suffers for it. In that film, we were with them all the way. In this one, maybe not so much. In that film, the pivotal moment had some scary ramifications, because we didn’t want Ted to be sent to military school. In this one, losing at a Battle of the Bands doesn’t compare. Sure, it would have the same negative effect on future civilisation but that’s not personal for us.
And so this feels clever and innovative and daring and so many moments are glorious, but it fails quickly and consistently to emulate the success of the first movie. No wonder it failed at the box office. No wonder it became a cult hit. No wonder they eventually made the third film and we quickly wished they hadn’t.
But hey, this is Pam Grier’s First Thirty. I’m not talking much about her at all because, as was generally the case in the eighties, she had a small supporting part. However, as was also generally the case in the eighties, it’s a pivotal one, as we eventually discover when it turns out that she’s actually Rufus in disguise.
Does that explain the huge wig that makes her look far more like Tina Turner than Pam Grier? Probably not, but that does explain why I forgot she was in the movie. She looks great but she doesn’t look like her.
And so that’s it for Pam Grier’s First Thirty. She rocked the seventies, not always landing lead roles but often doing so and making a serious impact even if not. However, she was left behind by the eighties, unfairly relegated to supporting roles, only occasionally with an opportunity to truly shine.
Arguably, that wouldn’t change until Jackie Brown, film #39, which was still seven years away.