We at THN collectively love Keanu Reeves and have been immensely excited about his return this year in JOHN WICK. Although not released in UK cinemas until April, THN have been lucky enough to have already seen it and we can tell you that it is all kinds of awesome.
JOHN WICK was so brilliant that it has awoken my long-forgotten admiration for Mr Reeves and compelled me to revisit his extensive back catalogue immediately. Post-JOHN WICK viewing I arrived home, logged onto Amazon and purchased an alarming amount of films, including JOHNNY MNEMONIC (don’t worry, it was only 8p!). I thought I’d gotten through the Keanu phase at secondary school but it seems that it is now back with a vengeance. It all started after seeing that little known film THE MATRIX which was released right in the middle of my school career. Most of my peers were pining after Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp et al, but my closest friend and I had quirkier, less famous tastes; for my friend it was Val Kilmer and Gambit from X-Men (don’t ask), for me it was Christian Slater and Keanu Reeves.
Every Friday between now and the release of JOHN WICK on 10th April, I’ll be taking a look at a different Keanu classic. First up? It could only be BILL & TED’s EXCELLENT ADVENTURE.
Keanu Reeves was born in Beruit in 1964, but grew up primarily in Toronto, Canada. Acting wasn’t his first career choice; at high school he was heavily involved in sports, particularly ice hockey where he gained the nickname ‘The Wall’ for his skill as a goalie. After an injury left him unable to compete professionally Reeves turned to his ex-stepfather Paul Aaron, a Broadway and Hollywood director, who helped him get started in the moving picture world. Work came in steadily and Reeves worked his way from commercials to features rather swiftly, his first film role coming in 1986’s YOUNGBLOOD, which also starred future co-star Patrick Swayze. After this came a bigger role in RIVER’S EDGE, also released in 1986, a film which starred another future co-star Dennis Hopper. Then in 1987 came the role that would make him Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan. A role so iconic and well played, Ted has become forever synonymous with Keanu, leaving many confused as to whether there is any difference between Reeves and slacker Ted. He almost wasn’t Ted however, as Reeve’s originally auditioned for the role of Bill, a role that went to Alex Winter, who coincidentally first read for the role of Ted.
Alarmingly the world came very close to never seeing BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE. First shot in 1987 in Phoenix, Arizona, the film’s distributor De Laurentiis Entertainment Group went bankrupt – with a mouthful of a name like that, I’m not surprised. It was then Orion Pictures (who also did THE TERMINATOR) and Nelson Entertainment who came to the rescue and bought the rights in 1988, with the film finally being released in 1989.
For those not familiar with the plot of BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE it’s pretty simple really. Best friends Bill (Winter) and Ted (Reeves) dream of making it big with their two-piece band Wyld Stallyns, but first they need to learn how to play. The longevity of the band comes under threat when the pair find out that if they don’t ace their history project they’ll flunk school, which means that Ted’s overworked and strict dad (who is also the local Police Captain) will ship him off to military school in Alaska. Unbeknownst to the duo, they and their band have a very important destiny and find themselves assisted by a figure from the future – Rufus (George Carlin). After being introduced to a telephone booth (the earliest form of a mobile phone for you younglings reading) that can travel any place through the circuits of time, Bill and Ted decide to collect historical figures to help them pass their assignment. What ensues is a lot of time-travelling hijinks and pop culture (well, 1980s pop culture) jokes and references.
The film is a harmless, thoroughly enjoyable comedic romp through history. As Bill and Ted, Winter and Reeves are instantly likable and you can’t help but will them to succeed. Granted, the pair are as dumb as two planks, but what they lack in smarts they make up for in heart. Their loyalty to each other is also rather sweet; who can forget Bill trying to avenge what he believes to be Ted’s death. The film actually deals with some more grown-up teenage problems too – Ted and his father are clearly at a disconnect, thankfully resolved by one Sigmund Freud. Bill on the other hand has ‘a slight Oedipal complex’ with his step-mom Missy, who in reality is only a couple of years older than Bill himself.
The film had a fantastic soundtrack and a great vision of the future – a world that had been united by the healing power of Wyld Stallyns music. With it being attacked as the ’cause of all evil and wrong doing’ in the media these days, there’s something quite nice about a film that states that rock music can heal the world. The motto of the pair ‘Be excellent to each other’ is still relevant today – wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could all live by that mantra?
The film was a pretty impressive success, although made for just $10 million it went on to take over $40 million, which of course meant that there was a sequel. BILL & TED’s BOGUS JOURNEY is a source of contention in my household with my other half preferring the sequel. For me however the sequel lost some focus as Bill and Ted found themselves up against a baddie from the future who has them killed and replaced with evil Bill and Ted robots. Death wasn’t enough to keep the dude duo down though as they took on The Grim Reaper (William Sadler) and played their way out of the other side. There was then some creature called ‘Station’ which frankly for me was a step too far. It did however feature the wonderful Sadler so it definitely did something right.
I did however love the animated series which followed the first film, and did see both Winter and Reeves return to voice our slacker heroes for the first thirteen episodes at least. The cartoon had the musicians use their time-travelling telephone booth to solve all sorts of everyday problems. For example, the first episode had the pair travel back in time to replace a Chinese antique vase that they accidentally broke. Along the way they would encounter several key members of history, giving the audience a mini history lesson each week. Educating whilst entertaining, the first series was a big hit, sadly the second series changed not only the voice talent but also the formula and concept too much, resulting in the cancellation of the show.
Both the cartoon and the films spawned a range of various products. Did you know that you can get action figures of not only Bill and Ted, but also Rufus and various historic figures who they cross paths with? You could also, for a period of time, buy branded cereal touted as being ‘A most awesome breakfast adventure’. Other tie-in products include band T-shirts for the fictitious Wyld Stallyns, a purchase that I can see in my future…
Ted is a role that has followed Keanu around for decades, and doesn’t seem to want to let him go any time soon, nor does Keanu want to let one of his most famous alter-egos slip away. Last year it was revealed that work on a third film is in the running. Reeves himself was extremely vocal about the project, excitedly chatting about where they are and what he envisaged would happen in the third film. The main idea that was being floated around revisited Bill and Ted who had, despite all the help, not managed to create the galaxy uniting music. This would of course rewrite the ending of BOGUS JOURNEY but that would not bother this writer – especially if it meant that Station was done away with. It’s been a little quiet recently, but we can only hope that the writers are hard at work creating a viable story so that we can once again go on an excellent adventure with Bill and Ted.
Next week I’ll be looking at the slightly more serious affair that is MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO, a film that saw Reeves star alongside the phenomenal talent that was River Phoenix. Read all our series here.